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Toxic Wastewater Dumped in Streets and Rivers at Night: Gas Profiteers Getting Away With Shocking Environmental Crimes

Allan Shipman was found guilty of illegally dumping millions of gallons of natural gas drilling wastewater. But he's part of a much bigger problem.

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Wild West Years

In the summer of 2008, the Monongahela River was teeming with high TDS. This period coincides with the Wild West years of Marcellus Shale drilling. Prior to 2007, newspapers hardly mentioned the words, as gas wells began popping up quietly across rural Pennsylvania. (Go to Google News and search for “Marcellus Shale” and a single result will emerge with these words, with no results at all returned prior to 2006.) The DEP was caught flat-footed, and illegally or not, as there were not many rules in place, let alone any recommendations as to what to do with the wastewater, Pennsylvania streams and rivers were flooded with waste, which would in hindsight lead one to think this would make surface levels rise. But this is leaving out one important factor, which is that gas-drilling companies were also taking a tremendous amount of water out of the waterways, as each drilling site demands four million gallons of water per well. Following fracking operations this water would be returned to the waterways filthy. Combine this with low summer water levels and this threw the dilution factor completely off tilt in 2008.

Says Arnowitt, of Clean Water Action, “The sewage plants at that time was their main way of getting rid of the wastewater.” But sewage treatment cannot get rid of the salts and bromides from production water.

Left to their own devices, aka unregulated, the gas industry turned to guys like Allan Shipman, and then they turned a blind eye. In a DEP file, an executive summary of the third and fourth quarters of 2008 disclosed, “Based on the speciation there appears to be a strong correlation between THM formation and elevated source water bromide concentrations in the Monongahela River.”

Yet it wasn’t until the spring of 2011 that this agency requested, not required, water treatment plants to stop accepting Marcellus wastewater. In the 2011 statement, DEP secretary Michael Krancer said, “While there are several possible sources for bromide other than shale drilling wastewater, we believe that if operators would stop giving wastewater to facilities that continue to accept it under the special provision, bromide concentrations would quickly and significantly decrease." The statement added: “Removing TDS from water also removes bromides.”

It was a great step, even if a late step. Arnowitt is not entirely convinced that treatment plants have stopped accepting gas drilling wastewater even at this point, more than a year later, saying that between five and 10 treatment plants were still accepting natural gas drilling wastewater according to the most recent data Clean Water Action has, which is from July through December 2011. “It’s been a little bit hard to completely pin down,” Arnowitt says. “Once every six months gas well operators are required to send something to the state saying where they’ve sent their wastewater,” with the last report showing, “there were a few that showed greatly reduced intake, but there were still a few gas wells that showed they were sending wastewater to plants that service water disposal.”

The tracking system for gas drilling wastewater, now years into the process, is still extremely lacking.

“There is a system that exists in Pennsylvania,” says Arnowitt. “The problem is that it’s not transparent to the public, you and I can’t track shipments of wastewater from the well to the eventual source of where it’s disposed of. Theoretically the DEP could do that, but even they don’t have all the information sitting in their office in Harrisburg.” Millions of gallons of wastewater produced a day, buzzing down the road, and still nobody’s really keeping track. “There’s no public oversight,” says Arnowitt.

 
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