The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to ban publicly owned wastewater treatment facilities from taking untreated waste fluids from the unconventional oil and gas industry in a move that would guarantee the end of a disposal practice that the industry and states have already abandoned.
In a notice Tuesday, federal regulators said they are taking comments on their plan to forbid publicly owned treatment works from accepting and discharging the wastewater, which often contains high concentrations of salt and lesser amounts of chemicals, metals and naturally occurring radioactive materials that are potentially harmful to human health and the environment. Public sewage treatment plants are not designed to remove those pollutants, which can flow through to streams untreated or interfere with the plant’s normal treatment processes.
The rule would apply to wastewater that comes from production, field exploration, drilling, well completion or well treatment during unconventional oil and gas extraction, which generally uses the combined technologies of fracking and horizontal drilling to pull hydrocarbons from tight geologic formations, like the Marcellus and Utica shales.
It would not apply to conventional oil and gas operations that generally use vertical wells to tap shallower formations and produce smaller amounts of waste fluids. It also would not apply to commercial wastewater plants that treat and discharge fluids to waterways, which are regulated separately.
The EPA said the proposed rule would not impose costs or reduce pollution because unconventional operators have already stopped using public treatment plants to manage their wastewater. In its research for the rule, the agency said it did not find any public treatment plant in any state that is accepting unconventional oil and gas wastewater directly from an operator. Instead, companies are relying on recycling and reuse, commercial treatment plants or deep disposal wells to handle their waste fluids.
The goal of the rule is to “ensure that such current industry best practice is maintained over time,” the agency said.
Shale companies stopped hauling their wastewater to public treatment plants for disposal in Pennsylvania in 2011 after the state Department of Environmental Protection called for an end to the practice and the industry agreed to comply.
David Spigelmyer, president of the North Fayette-based Marcellus Shale Coalition, did not comment specifically on the proposal, but said in a statement that shale water management is “tightly and effectively regulated” in Pennsylvania, and the Marcellus Shale development region continues to foster innovative technologies and solutions that are both efficient and environmentally protective, especially wastewater recycling and reuse.