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Apology sought from Pitt researcher

| Thursday, April 14, 2011

The operator of a Marcellus shale wastewater treatment plant in Indiana County demanded an apology and retraction from a University of Pittsburgh researcher who issued a report contending chemicals and salts contained in its discharges threatened public health.

A lawyer representing Pennsylvania Brine Treatment Inc. sent a letter on Monday threatening legal action against Pitt researcher Conrad "Dan" Volz unless he apologizes and states that the company's oil and gas wastewater treatment plant in Josephine near Black Lick is "both effective and efficient."

Volz's report, later revised, was "at best inadvertently and at worst purposely misleading and defamatory towards my client," lawyer Andrew J. Leger Jr. wrote to Volz at Pitt's Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, where he is voluntarily resigning as director at the end of May over "philosophical differences" with the university regarding his opposition to Marcellus shale drilling.

Volz told the Tribune-Review on Wednesday that he had not seen Pennsylvania Brine's letter but said he would not apologize or issue a retraction.

A Pitt spokeswoman said she did not know about the letter and could not comment on it.

Volz's March 23 report compared levels of several chemicals in the plant's treated discharge to safe levels in public drinking water. It contended state Department of Environmental Protections officials should halt the plant's operations and re-evaluate its discharges for potential harm to drinking water, fish and aquatic life. In his revised report two days later, Volz changed risk level comparisons for certain pollutants, and acknowledged the treatment plant's discharge permit did not list bromide and some other agents used in the drilling process.

His revised report retained recommendations that the state halt the plant's operations and that downstream drinking water systems and the public be made aware of "potential impacts."

"It can only be assumed, given your education and expertise, that the misleading nature of your comparison is purposeful and meant to defame and/or disparage my client," Leger wrote.

Volz, who is not a tenured professor, said his contract with the university expired in March but was extended until he plans to leave in May. He said the university did not want him to widely distribute his findings about the Josephine plant to news media.

Volz summarized his findings from the Josephine plant at a hearing on Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works.

"The ramifications of disposal of large quantities of oil and gas wastewater through ineffectual brine treatment plants ... needs further evaluation throughout the region to determine its impact on stream and river systems and public drinking water supplies, as well as to recreationalists and private well water users," Volz testified in a prepared statement. His testimony and that of others on both sides of the Marcellus shale debate can be found at http://trib.me/volzhearing .

Pennsylvania Brine first took issue with Volz's research in a March 31 memo that a company spokesman sent to some reporters. The company said Volz's report erroneously compared its effluence with drinking water standards, that he greatly exaggerated scenarios in which humans could come in contact with the effluence, and that he claimed the Blacklick Creek is a trout-stocking stream.

"The state never expected our discharge to be drinking-water quality," Paul Hart, president of the treatment company, told the Trib.

Volz said no standard exists for treatment plant discharges, so he compared the water coming out of the plant to available health standards. He called his March report preliminary and said he would write a final report for an academic journal that includes information about the Josephine plant and treatment facilities on the Monongahela River and along Ten Mile Creek in Greene County. He declined to name the journal.

Volz plans to speak at a public event at 7 tonight at the Charles and Mary Lou Young Nonprofit Center in Natrona Heights.

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