While the US pollution-watching world has been tuned into the tar sands oil spill drama unfolding in Arkansas, another potential risk situation related to fossil fuels has been quietly bubbling along under the radar. At least, it was quiet until last week, when our friends over at Reuters caught our attention with a story about a move to ship fracking wastewater from natural gas wells by barge on the Ohio River. The shift to river routes could help relieve some of the stress on inland communities caused by tanker trucks, but it also transfers some of those impacts to port communities and opens up yet another avenue of risk for water contamination.
Fracking Wastewater Barges On The Ohio River
For those of you new to the topic, fracking (aka hyrdrofracturing) refers to a method of drilling that involves shooting a chemical brine underground in order to loosen deposits of natural gas or oil from shale formations, leaving copious amounts of industrial wastewater to be trucked away for treatment and/or disposal.
Due to a previous exemption from federal Clean Water Act regulations, the ingredients in fracking fluid are considered trade secrets, though under the Obama Administration the EPA has been trying to pry out the relevant information.
While fracking is not a particularly new practice, until recently it was mainly confined to remote areas and its regulatory exemptions made it difficult if not impossible to ascertain its impacts. Now that the natural gas boom has brought fracking into more densely populated areas, evidence is mounting on public health impacts as well as the risk of infrastructure damage from earthquakes related to fracking wastewater disposal.
The latest twist, which Sharon Kelly of DeSmogBlog picked up on earlier this year, started with a “small announcement” that caught the eye of local communities, regarding plans to ship fracking wastewater by barge on the Ohio River.
Kelly notes that the Texas-based company GreenHunter Water has already built a shipping and storage facility on the Ohio River at New Matamoras, Ohio, and last month the industry newsletter Marcellus Drilling News picked up on the company’s plans for another facility in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Reuters followed up last week with a report that the Coast Guard had “quietly” sent a proposal to permit fracking wastewater barges over to the federal Office of Management and Budget.
That’s where things stand for now. The next step, if OMB decides to move the proposal forward, would be a public comment period.
More Risks For Fracking
Timothy Gardner of Reuters makes the point that barge traffic on the Ohio River already routinely includes liquid fuels and chemicals, so all things being equal what’s another few barges more or less?
Well, for one thing, Gardner also points out that among other toxic substances fracking wastewater contains small amounts of naturally occurring radioactive materials from shale called TENORMS, which could cause it to run afoul of EPA’s efforts to regulate those substances (if you’re interested, a recent University of Pennsylvania study has more on the subject).
Meanwhile, Kelly notes that purposeful “leakage” of fracking wastewater from tanker trucks while en route is already a problem, especially when open taps can be disguised by rainy weather. Marcellus Drilling News, though a pointedly industry-friendly source, also reported recently on one particularly egregious case in which one company used the cover of night to dump untreated fracking wastewater into sewers in Youngstown, Ohio.
Barging offers a whole new level and scale of disguise. It would be one thing if fracking wastewater was subject to the same tracking and manifesting regulations that cover other hazardous substances. However, the aforementioned Clean Water Act exemption means that for fracking wastewater the temptation is enormous while the deterrents are few.