EPA to block drillers from sending wastewater to municipal treatment plants

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is moving to block one option for oil and gas companies trying to get rid of the millions of gallons of briny, metal-laden wastewater that can flow out of each hydraulically fractured well — leaving the industry with few alternatives.

At issue is the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to block companies from sending that drilling wastewater to municipal treatment facilities ill equipped to remove the naturally occurring radium, bromide and other toxins carried with the fluid out of the ground.

When salty bromide mixes with chlorine at treatment plants, it can produce trihalomethanes linked to bladder cancer and miscarriages. Pennsylvania officials concerned about that toxic combination and facing pressure from the EPA blocked oil and gas companies from delivering their wastewater to the state’s treatment facilities in 2011, but federal regulations still allow the practice.

Public health advocates hailed the EPA’s “zero-discharge” proposal as a vital step to protecting drinking water nationwide in comments filed with the federal government last week.

And while no known municipal facilities currently accept drilling wastewater, that could change as pressure and limitations mount on other disposal methods, said Rachel Richardson, director of Environment America’s “Stop Drilling” program.

“Putting this rule in place is essential to mitigate future harms,” Richardson said. “Fracking wastewater is a big problem for which there is simply no adequate solution. . . . It’s crazy that highly toxic, radioactive wastewater can still be treated at the same place as dirty bath water, then released into the rivers and lakes we drink from.”

Even conventional oil and gas wells can deliver wastewater to the surface — primarily fluids that flow along with the fossil fuels out of the underground formation.

But the industry’s water management needs have skyrocketed with the surge in hydraulic fracturing, a process that involves pumping millions of gallons of water along with sand and chemicals underground to open the pores of dense rock formations and unlock the oil and gas trapped inside. Some of that fracturing fluid can surge back to the surface along with water from the formation itself. Over time, the initial surge of returning fracturing fluid declines and water that was already underground can flow alongside oil and gas from the reservoir itself.

Oil and gas producers traditionally have managed the wastewater by trucking it to treatment facilities, injecting it into deep storage wells or recycling the fluids. But municipal wastewater treatment facilities are blocked off in Pennsylvania, the only state where drillers were using them for disposal. Underground injection is drawing new scrutiny because of its possible link to earthquakes. And not all wastewater can be recycled.

Related story: Mega injections of wastewater during drilling triggered more quakes, study says

The EPA also is considering going beyond its proposed limitation on municipal wastewater treatment facilities by weighing possible standards for sending oil and gas wastewater to centralized treatment facilities.

“As the screws tighten on other disposal options, (oil companies) are going to look at the cheapest and most readily available disposal option,” said John Noel, the national oil and gas campaigns coordinator for Clean Water Action.

Oil industry trade groups argue that the EPA is unfairly closing off the municipal treatment plant option by exaggerating the convenience and availability of wastewater injection and recycling.

And some industry leaders worry the EPA’s move is just the first of many to come, as environmentalists opposed to oil and gas development focus criticism on wastewater disposal.

“This clearly adversarial atmosphere on fossil energy will continue to threaten the ability to site and use disposal technologies, no matter how historically beneficial their record may be,” said the Independent Petroleum Association of America and more than two dozen regional trade groups in comments filed with the government.

The EPA is now set to reexamine and refine its proposal, in response to at least 19,000 comments received by a July 17 deadline.

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Industry trade groups said the EPA’s proposal can’t be considered in isolation. Other water management options — and the possibility that they may be foreclosed — should have been part of the agency’s analysis, said the American Petroleum Institute.

Underground injection wells “are not necessarily available nationwide (and) are a viable option only where geologic characteristics favor necessary or optimal rates of injection,” the API said. “And access to these disposal wells may become restricted in ways largely outside of EPA’s control.”

For example, North Carolina has recently prohibited disposing oil and gas drilling waste in underground injection wells, and other states worried about the practice inducing earthquakes may take similar action.

There also is little capacity to inject drilling wastewater underground in Pennsylvania, where gas companies are targeting the Marcellus Shale formation. The geology of that area has made it cost prohibitive in some cases to drill deep injection wells, notes the Domestic Energy Producers Alliance.

In Pennsylvania, drillers are worried about a double whammy — that EPA will follow up its currently proposed zero-discharge rule for municipal treatment plants with another standard blocking them from sending fluids to centralized facilities too.

“If that is foreclosed, then we’re facing a loss of production because the water can’t be managed,” said Lee Fuller, IPAA’s executive vice president.

Industry representatives also argue that the EPA’s proposal is not grounded in the best economically achievable technology available for wastewater management today.

“Drilling and wastewater treatment technologies are swiftly evolving,” said the API, adding that “the rapid evolution of technologies and practices will have likely solved many of the specific issues that we might predict today.”

But Noel argues that the primary goal should be safeguarding public health and the environment — not accommodating the industry.

“The whole point of the environmental protection laws is protecting the environment — not creating options for industry for the easiest and cheapest ways to dispose the waste they created.”

Fuller sees critics targeting wastewater disposal and hydraulic fracturing as a way to limit the underlying drilling and energy production.

“Clearly their objective is to close the options,” Fuller said. “This is not . . . a battle over fracturing, it’s a war over fossil energy.”

If attacks on the hydraulic fracturing process aren’t working, “then you start proliferating the issue to anything else you can find — water supply, wastewater management, air emissions,” Fuller added. “Whatever’s out there, you try to go after it. And that’s the battle we’re fighting.”

Noel countered that there is “no coordinated effort to shut down oil and gas development via wastewater disposal.”

Instead, he said, the EPA’s proposal is evidence of federal officials trying to catch up with drilling practices and disposal practices that evolved quicker than their environmental regulations.

“Some of the ways (oil companies) are disposing of their waste is so egregious and causing so many blatant problems it’s hard not to ask questions,” he said. “Now you’re just seeing,10 years after the fracturing boom kicked off, federal environmental protections catching up.”