- Associated Press - Monday, January 3, 2011

The natural gas boom gripping parts of the U.S. has a nasty byproduct: wastewater so salty, and so polluted with metals like barium and strontium, that most states require drillers to get rid of the stuff by injecting it down shafts thousands of feet deep.

Not in Pennsylvania, one of the states at the center of the gas rush.

There, the liquid that gushes from gas wells is only partially treated for substances that could be environmentally harmful, then dumped into rivers and streams from which communities get their drinking water.

In the two years since the frenzy of activity began in the vast underground rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale, Pennsylvania has been the only state allowing waterways to serve as the primary disposal place for the huge amounts of wastewater produced by a drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.


State regulators, initially caught flat-footed, tightened the rules this year for any new water treatment plants but allowed any existing operations to continue discharging water into rivers.

At least 3.6 million barrels of the waste were sent to treatment plants that empty into rivers during the 12 months ending June 30, according to state records. That is enough to cover a square mile with more than 8 1/2 inches of brine.

Researchers are still trying to figure out whether Pennsylvania’s river discharges, at their current levels, are dangerous to humans or wildlife. Several studies are under way, some under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency.

State officials, energy companies and the operators of treatment plants insist that with the right safeguards in place, the practice poses little or no risk to the environment or to the hundreds of thousands of people who rely on those rivers for drinking water.

But an Associated Press review found that Pennsylvania’s efforts to minimize, control and track wastewater discharges from the Marcellus Shale have sometimes failed.

For example:

_ Of the roughly 6 million barrels of well liquids produced in a 12-month period examined by the AP, the state couldn’t account for the disposal method for 1.28 million barrels, about a fifth of the total, because of a weakness in its reporting system and incomplete filings by some energy companies.

_ Some public water utilities that sit downstream from big gas wastewater treatment plants have struggled to stay under the federal maximum for contaminants known as trihalomethanes, which can cause cancer if swallowed over a long period.

_ Regulations that should have kept drilling wastewater out of the important Delaware River Basin, the water supply for 15 million people in four states, were circumvented for many months.

In 2009 and part of 2010, energy company Cabot Oil & Gas trucked more than 44,000 barrels of well wastewater to a treatment facility in Hatfield Township, a Philadelphia suburb. Those liquids ultimately were discharged into a creek that provides drinking water to 17 municipalities with more than 300,000 residents. Cabot acknowledged it should not have happened.

People in those communities had been told repeatedly that the watershed was free of gas waste.

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