Coast Guard plan would let 'frackwater' travel waterways on barges
The Coast Guard is proposing to let shale drillers ship their wastewater on barges, a move that could lower disposal costs for energy companies but fuel fears about the risks of transporting potentially toxic waste on rivers that supply drinking water.
The Coast Guard did not cite environmental risks in its policy proposal but focused on the threat to barge workers. It may allow barge transport if companies analyze the chemicals in each shipment, keep radioactive particles below set levels and limit workers' exposure to gas venting from the tanks, according to a policy proposal published Wednesday.
The decision occurs after more than a year of study by the Coast Guard, which oversees the nation's waterways. Opposition is starting to build.
All three responses posted online during the first day of open comment called it a bad idea. Drinking water intakes could be exposed to harmful risks, two residents of Ohio said.
Wastewater is a big business in modern shale drilling. Millions of gallons of water go into wells to crack underground rocks — hydraulic fracturing — and release gas, and companies spend millions of dollars to recycle that water for new wells or to ship it, often several hundred miles away, for safe injection underground.
Drillers today rely on tanker trucks to transport drilling waste, which could include toxic chemicals and other radioactive material, to recycling centers or to disposal sites outside of Pennsylvania. Many of those sites are in Ohio, where the so-called “frackwater” is injected into underground wells.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a drilling industry group, plans to monitor the process, spokesman Patrick Creighton said. “We've got every confidence that the Coast Guard, whatever comes of this process, will make the right decision and make sure that the public safety, health and welfare is kept in mind,” he added.
Proponents of river shipment say it would allow drilling companies to save money by shipping in bulk and help the environment by getting tanker trucks that ship the water off the road, cutting down on noise and carbon pollution that have outraged residents in some communities.
Environmental service companies have been building up transit hubs to take waste to Ohio — which has the most disposal sites in the region — and tanker and boat companies are all looking for a slice of that work.
“Yeah, we're excited, absolutely,” said Peter Stephaich, chairman of Washington County-based Campbell Transportation. He's been in contact with several companies about pushing their tank barges up and down the rivers. “There's some pent-up demand. People have been waiting for this, and it will probably start pretty quickly, but it's going to take a while for the people who own this water from moving this by truck to moving this by barge.”
The Coast Guard had been working on a risk assessment for several years, and the commander in charge of it told the Tribune-Review in December he was pushing for a quick decision. The water was being transported by rail and road, he noted.
If river shipments are allowed, it could be a blow to truckers. But Pam Melott, operations manager at Indiana-based WTC Gas Field Services Inc., which handles some drilling waste, said public opposition will be hard for river shippers to overcome.
“That's not going fly. It won't last,” she said. “It's more dangerous because of how close it is to the water.”
Supporters disagree, noting that many chemicals, including jet fuel and gasoline, are transported in bulk on the nation's rivers.
The proposal, which is open for public comment until Nov. 29, focused on keeping barge workers safe from radioactive particles that come up in the wastewater from gas wells in the Marcellus and other shales. The Coast Guard is obligated to review every comment before finalizing its decision.
“The Coast Guard is concerned that, over time, sediment and deposits with radioisotopes may accumulate on the inside of the barge tank surface and may pose a health risk to personnel entering the tank,” according to the proposal. “The Coast Guard's concern with respect to radioisotopes is to ensure that radiation exposure duration and levels are both kept as low as reasonably achievable, within the meaning of Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations ... .”
Many hazardous chemicals like jet fuel and gasoline are shipped on the rivers each day. But while the Coast Guard focused on the risk to boat workers, environmentalists worried about the risk of river spills. The Coast Guard did not discuss the risk of spills in its proposal. Stephaich called that an “emotional” issue that's not “technically challenging.”
“It's kind of like saying that because we have a poorly constructed system for carrying hazardous chemicals on the river, we should have a poorly constructed system for carrying all chemicals on the river,” said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania director at Clean Water Action. “We'd like to see improvements in that system across the board.”
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.