States Increasingly Concerned Over Fracking Wastewater, But Limited In What They Can Do

Wyoming: Upper Green River Valley/CC BY 1.0

The debate over fracking has exploded over the last couple years, with widely disparate claims over how much gas is stored under U.S. soil and how much of an environmental nightmare the process of fracking really is—but a point that often gets overlooked is the waste produced by that process.

When gas companies inject water and chemicals at extremely high pressures into the ground to extract the gas, there's a bunch of chemical-laced wastewater that they then have to deal with. Some states have started to regulate this wastewater—Pennsylvania, for example, asked the industry to stop sending it to treatment plants that discharge into rivers and streams.

Last week, legislation was introduced in Maryland that would ban the treatment of wastewater generated by other states' fracking operations.

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said about the proposed bill, “It is almost impossible to know what chemicals are being used in the fracking process, and if these chemicals have been treated properly before being discharged into watersheds like the Chesapeake Bay.”

The Hydraulic Fracturing Wastewater Prohibition Act would address some of those concerns. Food & Water Watch explains more:

Chemicals used in fracking in states such as Pennsylvania are toxic and often radioactive. Industrial waste from the process is often being shipped around the country and treated by municipal plants that lack the experience or processes to address this type of wastewater...

Scientists have found that 25 percent of chemicals used in fracking can cause cancer; 37 percent can disrupt the endocrine system; and 40 to 50 percent can affect the nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems.

Different Story in Ohio
But weak regulations mean an extra dose of the toxic water for states that aren't taking the kind of proactive approach that Maryland is trying to take. Take a look at Ohio.

Bloomberg reports:

In Ohio, companies pay to operate disposal wells after they have been approved by the state, and brine haulers hired by drillers pay the companies to inject the fluid. The well owners pay a disposal fee to the state of 5 cents per barrel for brine originating in the state and 20 cents for out-of-state wastewater, according to the Ohio Natural Resources Department.

Republican Governor John Kasich said that while he’s not happy about the increasing volume of wastewater from neighboring states, the U.S. Constitution prohibits interference with shipments. He declined to speculate about what might be done.

In the last two years, Ohio has approved more permits (29 last year alone) for disposal wells than during the previous decade combined, and more than half of its record injection volume was from out of state. And this has consequences, not the least of which is a marked increase in earthquakes: one well alone has been affiliated with 11 quakes in nine months.

Bloomberg quotes state Representative Armond Budish: “We have become in Ohio the dumping ground for contaminated brine... We didn’t prepare adequately for the potential for earthquakes and other environmental problems.” And then explains just how much wastewater has gone to Ohio:

Of the almost 22 million gallons of wastewater that Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale operators sent to disposal wells in the first six months of 2011, nearly 99 percent went to Ohio, according to production reports from the Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Department.

Ohio is considering tightening regulations on fracking wells, but in the meantime, it's a serious problem that needs to be addressed. It needs to be part of the larger discussion of fracking and the risks involved in expanding the natural gas industry. As Jan Jarrett, chief executive of environmental group PennFuture, said, “This is not going to go away.”

Tags: Fracking | Ohio | Pollution | Waste