U.S. Coast Guard publishes proposed policy on moving frack wastewater by barge

Photo by David Watson / Flickr

The U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates the country’s waterways, will allow shale gas companies to ship fracking wastewater on the nation’s rivers and lakes under a proposed policy published Wednesday.

The Coast Guard began studying the issue nearly two years ago at the request of its Pittsburgh office, which had inquiries from companies transporting Marcellus Shale wastewater.

If the policy is approved, companies can ship the wastewater in bulk on barges on the nation’s 12,000 miles of waterways, a much cheaper mode than trucks or rail.

The public will have 30 days to comment.

Under the policy, companies would first have to test the wastewater at a state-certified laboratory and provide the data to the Coast Guard for review. The tests would determine levels of radioactivity, pH, bromides and other hazardous materials.

In addition, the barges would also have to be checked for the accumulation of radioactive particles that might affect workers.

If the test results meet the limits outlined in the policy, the companies would receive Coast Guard approval to ship the wastewater in bulk. It is unclear whether the barge companies would self-report the test results.

All records outlined in the proposed policy must be held by the barge companies for two years, but would be available to the Coast Guard. Normally, the information also would be available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

However, “the identity of proprietary chemicals may be withheld from public release,” the policy states.

Proposed policy letter from the U.S. Coast Guard

Environmental groups, academics and the media have tried to get information about the chemicals used in fracking in the past. However, gas drilling companies have refused to release the specific amounts of chemicals they pump underground to release gas from the shale formation.

Benjamin Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University about 60 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, said the part of the policy about proprietary chemicals is worrisome to him because “it’s the easy out.

“All they have to do is say ‘proprietary information’ and they don’t  have to do anything” in terms of releasing information to the public, he said.

(Stout is a board member of FracTracker, a non-profit that disseminates data about the shale gas industry. Both FracTracker and PublicSource are funded, in part, by the Heinz Endowments.)

The gas drilling industry already is exempt from a laundry list of federal regulations, including the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

The Coast Guard’s letter accompanying the proposed policy specifically asks the public for comment on the disclosure of proprietary information.

The full policy can be read on the Coast Guard’s website. All public comments will be posted at htttp://www.regulations.gov.

“We are required to take in consideration those comments before we move to the next step,” said Carlos Diaz, a spokesman for the Coast Guard. “Our role as a regulatory agency is to get it right.”

The question of moving the wastewater by barges has been controversial.

Environmentalists said the possibility of a spill that could contaminate Pittsburgh’s rivers with chemicals isn’t worth the risk. But industry officials said barges are the safest, and cheapest, way to move the wastewater.

“Waterways are the least costly way of transporting it,” said James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, an agency that advocates for waterway transport. “We look forward to being able to get the trucks off the highways as quickly as possible.”

Stout counters that the risks on the water are huge.

Don't miss part I of this coverage:

Shale drillers eager to move wastewater on barges

The shale gas drilling industry wants to move its wastewater by barge on rivers and lakes across the country. But the U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates the nation’s waterways, must first decide whether it’s safe.

Read the full story >>

“If and when there’s a spill, that can’t be cleaned up,” he said. “That means it’s going to be in the drinking-water supply of millions of people.”

One of the companies interested in the policy is GreenHunter Water, which handles wastewater for major oil and gas companies.

Jonathan Hoopes, president of GreenHunter, said the company is pleased that the proposed policy has been published.

“Now that we’ve seen the proposed policy letter, it allows us to do the research that we need to do to comply,” he said.

“You’ll hear a lot more from a lot larger companies than GreenHunter in the near future about this,” he added.

Officials from the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents gas drilling companies, did not return a phone call requesting comment.

There is commercial interest in moving the wastewater from Pennsylvania via inland waterways to be stored, reprocessed or disposed of in Ohio, Texas, and Louisiana, according to the policy.

If approved, the Coast Guard's policy could be momentous for the gas-drilling industry, as the amount and transportation of wastewater is seen as a growing concern for both the industry and its critics.

Each barge could transport approximately 10,000 barrels of wastewater over the nation’s waterways.

Steve Hvozdovich, who is with the advocacy organization Clean Water Action, said his group plans to comment on the policy.

“I’m a little disappointed to hear there’s only a 30-day public comment period,” he said. “Thirty days is not sufficient in my mind.”

Reach Emily DeMarco at 412-315-0262 or edemarco@publicsource.org.

Comments

To help facilitate the conversation, we've put together some guidelines so you'll know what we think is harmful or inappropriate. Harmful, inappropriate content will be removed and repeat offenders can be banned from contributing in the future. Click here to read our commenting guidelines.

  • It may be cheaper than rail, but a spill on our waterways, many of which provide our drinking water, is priceless. Does anyone really believe that the gas and oil industry can't afford to use the railways??? Please! - by Sean Lohman Detisch on November 4, 2013 - 11:09am
  • Unbelievable.. We cannot let mankind keep destroying our earth. We can't survive with out clean air and water. Why destroy the two major things we need to live. The Hydro/Fracking waste isn't good for our lands and waters.. The gas and oil companies have no compassion for the people who live in this world.. It's a shame we will all be exiting this beautiful planet God created sooner then planned if we allow these companies to destroy it.. Money can't buy all the happiness in the world, it causes pain for all the innocent.. - by Kimberly Nugent Fattorusso on November 4, 2013 - 11:04am
  • How many accidents will it take to stop tempting fate. Allowing this type of behavior by gas and oil companies when human error and greed are ineviditable. We treat oil and gas like we can't live without it. When in reality we can't live without clean air and water. - by Karen Fifelski on November 3, 2013 - 10:24am
  • I dont think so. keep your frack off of OUR waters. thanks but no thanks! - by Number Six on November 5, 2013 - 6:35pm
  • Interesting that there is only a 30-day public comment period. Even more interesting is the difficulty it takes to leave a comment. I tried last night for hours and the site kept timing out. I tried again today and the site is DOWN. Do you suppose they will allow more time for people to comment since the technical difficulties make it impossible to leave a comment? Hmmmm...imagine that...if it's too difficult or annoying, people will lose patience and give up. I will keep trying. - by Corina Ravenscraft on November 6, 2013 - 1:01am
  • Doing this is rolling the Dice , sooner or later there will be a spill and again they are poisoning our water supply. The Gas companies are greedy as other industrial companies ( unelected government ) and very likely to cut corners . The noble thing to do is ban Fracking. - by Michael Morrison on November 6, 2013 - 12:19pm
  • Go here to leave your comment: http://www.regulations.gov/?source=govdelivery#!documentDetail;D=USCG-2013-0915-0001 - by Lisa Sorrels on November 4, 2013 - 9:00am
  • It's an eventuality that there will be a spill. The question seems to me whether it's better to have it on land or in our waters, and judgement should follow accordingly. - by Andrew Summerville on November 4, 2013 - 8:00am
  • Sounds like chemotherapy for the Great Lakes. Sending toxic cocktails through our Mother's Veins? Insanity. - by Ellen E Waara on November 4, 2013 - 12:29pm