PITTSBURGH — A former top environmental official says Pennsylvania’s successful efforts to keep Marcellus Shale wastewater away from drinking water supplies should be extended to all other oil and gas drillers.
“It’s the same industry. It is the same contaminants. And the goal should be the same,” said George Jugovic Jr., who was formerly the Department of Environmental Protection’s southwest regional director. He’s now president of PennFuture, an environmental group.
An AP analysis of state data found that in the second half of 2011 about 1.86 million barrels — or about 78 million gallons — of drilling wastewater from conventional oil and gas wells were still being sent to treatment plants that discharge into rivers.
The core issue is whether a problem in waterways has been solved, or if more needs to be done.
In 2010 health experts raised alarms when they found soaring levels of ultra-salty bromides in rivers and streams that are major sources of drinking water. The general view was that wastewater from Marcellus Shale gas drilling — polluted with heavy bromides from deep underground — was contributing to the problem.
High levels of bromides can contaminate drinking water with levels that exceed national safety standards and are potentially harmful. Though not considered a pollutant by themselves, the bromides combine with the chlorine used in water treatment to produce trihalomethanes, which may cause cancer if ingested over a long period of time.
Bromide levels were so high in rivers during 2010 that they caused corrosion at some plants that were using the water.
But since the spring of 2011 most Marcellus drillers have been recycling the fluids, or sending then to deep underground wells mostly in Ohio.
The gas-rich Marcellus, which lies thousands of feet underground, has attracted a gold rush of drillers who have drilled almost 5,000 new wells in the last five years. But the state also has about 70,000 older oil and gas wells, according to DEP statistics, that target different, shallower reserves.
Researchers say the bromide levels did drop last summer, but they had also expected even more of a decline after virtually all of the Marcellus Shale drillers stopped disposing wastewater into plants that discharge into rivers.
But conventional oil and gas wells weren’t included in last year’s recycling push — a loophole that state environmental officials downplayed at the time.
Jugovic said DEP secretary Mike Krancer should now take “the next step” and get voluntary compliance from the rest of the gas industry.
“It’s hard scientifically to justify a distinction between treating conventional wastewater differently. The wastewater is being disposed in plants that are not capable of treating those contaminants,” he said.
Dave Mashek, a spokesman for the Pa. Independent Oil & Gas Association, declined to comment.
Kevin Sunday, a DEP spokesman, claimed that the volume of conventional oil and gas waste is “substantially smaller” than the Marcellus amounts.
But the AP found that 78 million gallons of oil and gas wastewater were still being taken to treatment plants in the last half of 2011 — about 33 percent less than the Marcellus quantity that was raising concerns in 2010, but still a substantial amount. If that rate continues, the conventional wells will send about 150 million gallons of the wastewater to treatment plants that discharge into rivers this year.
Sunday said the agency encourages wastewater recycling, “regardless of the industry involved,” and added that the conventional oil and gas drillers don’t produce as much wastewater as the Marcellus drillers.
Sunday also said that the agency has created a new, revised permit to encourage recycling of waste. Ten facilities have applied for the new permit, and if all are approved, that would double the number of such facilities in the state.
David Sternberg, a spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, didn’t directly answer a question about whether there was any scientific justification for treating the non-Marcellus waste differently. Sternberg said EPA, which urged Pennsylvania regulators last year to halt the dumping, is working closely with state regulators “to ensure that, where wastewater treatment facilities are accepting oil and gas wastewaters, discharges from these treatment facilities are in compliance with the Clean Water Act.”
Jugovic said that some previous assumptions about the non-Marcellus waste turned out to be false. For example, there were suggestions that it generally contained much lower levels of bromides and other contaminants.
He said some of the shallow wells had very high levels of total dissolved solids and other contaminants that can be a problem for drinking water supplies.
Jugovic also said that the fact that 97 percent of Marcellus drillers appear to be complying with the wastewater restrictions raises a fairness issue. Why, he asked, should the conventional oil and gas drillers and the remaining 3 percent of drillers get a pass?
Now, researchers are waiting for expected lower river levels in the summer, to see if the bromide problem has really gone away. The higher flows in early spring dilute any contaminants and make it harder to draw conclusions about the bromides.