A major dispute is brewing over transporting wastewater from shale gas wells by barge in the Ohio River, the source of drinking water for millions of Americans.
On January 26, GreenHunter Water announced that it had been granted approval by the U.S. Coast Guard to haul tens of thousands of barrels from its shipping terminal and 70,000-barrel wastewater storage facility on the Ohio River in New Matamoras, Ohio.
“The U.S. Coast Guard approval is a significant 'win' for both GreenHunter Resources and our valued clients,” Kirk Trosclair, Chief Operating Officer at GreenHunter Resources, Inc., said in a statement announcing the Coast Guard's approval. “Our ability to transport disposal volumes via barge will significantly reduce our costs, improve our margins and allow us to pass along savings to our clients.”
Outraged environmental advocates immediately objected to the news.
“Despite the thousands of comments from residents along the Ohio River opposing the risk of allowing toxic, radioactive fracking waste to be barged along the Ohio River, the Coast Guard quietly approved the plan at the end of 2014,” said Food & Water Watch Ohio Organizer Alison Auciello.
“The Coast Guard is risking man-made earthquakes, drinking water contamination, leaks and spills. This approval compromises not only the health and safety of the millions who get their drinking water from the Ohio River but will increase the amount of toxic fracking waste that will be injected underground in Southeast Ohio.”
But the company's announcement was in fact made before the Coast Guard completed its review of the hazards of hauling shale gas wastewater via the nation's waterways – a process so controversial given the difficulty of controlling mid-river spills and the unique challenges of handling the radioactivity in Marcellus shale brine that proposed Coast Guard rules have drawn almost 70,000 public comments.
GreenHunter's move drew a sharp rebuke from Coast Guard officials.
The U.S. Coast Guard released plans that would allow wastewater from shale gas to be shipped via barge in the nation’s rivers and waterways on October 30 — and those rules have kicked up a storm of controversy. The proposal is drawing fire from locals and environmentalists along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers who say the Coast Guard failed to examine the environmental impacts of a spill and is only giving the public 30 days to comment on the plan.
Three million people get their water from the Ohio River, and further downstream, millions more rely on drinking water from the Mississippi. If the Coast Guard's proposed policy is approved, barges carrying 10,000 barrels of fracking wastewater would float downstream from northern Appalachia to Ohio, Texas and Louisiana.
Environmentalists say a spill could be disastrous, because the wastewater would contaminate drinking water and the complicated brew of contaminants in fracking waste, which include corrosive salts and radioactive materials, would be nearly impossible to clean up.
The billions of gallons of wastewater from fracking represent one of the biggest bottlenecks for the shale gas industry.
States atop the Marcellus shale are brimming with the stuff. Traditionally, oil and gas wastewater is disposed by pumping it underground using wastewater disposal wells, but the underground geology of northeastern states like Pennsylvania makes this far more difficult than in states like Texas, and Ohio has suffered a spate of earthquakes that federal researchers concluded were linked to these wastewater wells. The volumes of water used by drillers for the current shale gas boom are unprecedented.
It was meant to go unnoticed. A small announcement out of a commissioners’ meeting signaled plans to transport fracking wastewater by barge down the Ohio River. But it caught the eye of locals and offers a further reminder of why handling and disposal of the wastewater is truly one of the shale drilling industry’s most important and overlooked concerns.
Construction is already completed at one barging facility in the Marcellus region. A Texas-based company, GreenHunter Water, has built a shipping terminal and 70,000-barrel wastewater storage facility on the Ohio River in New Matamoras, Ohio. GreenHunter officials have said they are currently accepting about 3,000 barrels of fracking wastewater per day.
The U.S. Coast Guard is now reviewing plans to barge fracking wastewater in the region’s rivers, which serve as the drinking water supplies for over half a million people.
These plans have raised alarm for many reasons. In the event of a barge accident, the drinking water for major cities like Pittsburgh could be immediately contaminated; the barges themselves could become radioactive because Marcellus shale wastewater carries unusually high levels of radium; spills or illegal dumping could be harder to detect in water than on land.