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Use of mine drainage in drilling operations endorsed by state officials

| Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, 12:12 a.m.

State environmental regulators are willing to sign legal agreements with gas companies to help them use mine drainage in drilling operations without the risk of long-term problems, according to a guidance paper the state issued on Wednesday.

State officials want to encourage the use of mine drainage in drilling to help clean up that statewide water pollutant and issued a long-awaited eight-page document to detail the process.

Drilling companies have been hesitant to take long-term cleanup responsibilities, but they can avoid that and fund the work by coordinating with nonprofit groups and treatment plant owners, and by taking advantage of consent agreements with the Department of Environmental Protection and “Good Samaritan” provisions in state environmental law, the paper states.

More than 300 million gallons of water are discharged from abandoned coal mines each day, impairing more than 5,500 miles of Pennsylvania waterways.

“Abandoned mines present Pennsylvania with one of its biggest environmental challenges,” DEP Secretary Mike Krancer said in a statement announcing the paper, for which advocates had been waiting more than a year.

“This initiative, which combines remediating abandoned mine water with responsible extraction of our natural gas resources, is a win for our environment and our economy,” Krancer said.

While it may sound counterintuitive to use polluted water in drilling operations, environmental advocates have been pushing it for more than two years. Mine drainage harms thousands of miles of Pennsylvania waterways; if drillers used it in deep-shale, hydraulic-fracturing jobs, most of that water would end up trapped far underground or in drilling companies' recycled water systems, advocates claim.

Drillers may use only a fraction of the mine drainage, but much of it is in the heart of drilling land, meaning society will benefit from fewer truck trips and the impact of mass transport, said University of Pittsburgh professor Radisav D. Vidic, one of the plan's biggest backers.

“It's great that the DEP is moving in that direction,” Vidic said. “Somebody from the industry legal department is going to have to look at it and see if it absolves them of legal obligation. There's still a sentiment that if you touch it, you own it.”

Advocates had warned two years ago that if the state did not act fast, drilling companies would invest in easy river access for long-term water supplies and would be less likely to seek water sources like mine drainage.

Range Resources Corp. and Consol Energy Inc. spokesmen said on Wednesday that they are still reviewing the guidance paper.

“We have ample water access through our Ohio River infrastructure and transportation system, as well as our recycling program,” said Matt Pitzarella, the Cecil-based Range Resources spokesman. “But anything that makes water sourcing more accessible and in a manner that allows us to continue to improve the environment is a good step forward.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991.

or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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