Gas drillers point to safety of barges
Barges have a safety record that environmentalists and gas drillers can both point to as supporting their opposing views about a Coast Guard proposal to allow fracking waste to be shipped along the nation's rivers to disposal sites.
They average seven large spills a year on waterways that are a source of drinking water for some communities, an argument for environmentalists. For supporters of the plan, that number is an improving record that is better than the trucking industry's although it lags behind railroads.
A Port of Pittsburgh Commission breakdown shows chemicals moved by barge locally include gasoline, kerosene, solvents, fertilizers, benzene, toluene and ammonia. But that doesn't mean that fracking waste, which may contain toxic chemicals and radioactive material, is an easy addition.
“Nobody has figured out what the safe thing is to do if fracking water gets in our drinking water. So yes, I have concerns about shipping it by river,” said Tom Hoffman, Western Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action.
Fracking fluid is about 99.5 percent water and sand, but the remaining 0.5 percent contains additives that vary from company to company, said Patrick Creighton, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a drilling trade group.
Peter Stephaich, chairman and CEO of Washington County-based Campbell Transportation Co., which operates about 40 tows and 500 barges, said tank barges used today are double-hulled, meaning liquid chemicals are separated from the rivers by two layers of steel.
“They are tanks within tanks,” Stephaich said, adding that one 15-barge tow can haul the equivalent of 216 railroad cars and 1,050 trucks.
The amount of waste that can be shipped in barges is one of the reasons the industry wants the Coast Guard to allow it. They see convenience and possibly lower costs. But the amount is a concern for critics because an accident or spill can mean a bigger disaster.
Petroleum, chemicals, crude materials and related products represent about half of all commodities shipped on inland waterways, according to a report by the Texas Transportation Institute and National Waterways Foundation.
A Texas Transportation Institute report last year showed that barge companies had one spill of at least 1,000 gallons for every 39,404 ton-miles. By comparison, trucks average one spill for every 8,555 ton-miles and trains average one for 58,591 ton-miles.
Between 2003 and 2009, barge spills plummeted, the report said. After three straight years of at least 10 spills at the start of that span, just one large spill was reported in both 2008 and 2009, the report said.
“We get cleaner and safer every year,” Stephaich said.
The Coast Guard, which regulates shipping on the nation's waterways, is proposing to allow companies to ship fracking waste by barge under a series of conditions. The companies would need to test every shipment to measure the presence of more than 50 chemicals, among other things.
Fracking is a process in which high-pressure liquid injections crack rocks underground and free up natural gas deposits. When the water comes back out of the ground, it can be laced with high levels of barium, salts and other substances. Drillers now use tanker trucks to transport drilling wastewater, also known as frackwater, from drilling sites to treatment facilities and disposal sites.
Additives are used for a variety of reasons, from preventing corrosion and bacteria from forming in well pipes to reducing friction. A 2011 report cited by the industry coalition said additives include ethylene glycol, commonly used in airplane deicing and radiator fluid; 2-butoxy ethanol, used as a solvent in many surface coatings and fast-drying paints and lacquers; and hydrochloric acid. Many are considered harmful.
“Gasoline is gasoline, chlorine is chlorine. You know what you're getting. But frackwater is going to be different company by company and well by well,” Stephaich said, explaining why the Coast Guard is seeking testing for every shipment.
Stephaich predicted third-party inspectors would perform the analyses, which could take days.
River contamination can wreak havoc. A oil spill from a 40-year-old, 4 million-gallon Ashland Oil Company storage facility in 1988 contaminated drinking water sources for an estimated 1 million people in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, while killing wildlife, damaging property and temporarily halting river traffic. Stephaich noted that the catastrophe occurred on land.
Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or firstname.lastname@example.org.