EPA to regulate disposal of hydraulic fracturing wastewater

Officials for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced plans to draft national standards for the treatment and disposal of tainted wastewater generated during the common oil and gas drilling process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The Associated Press reported the move in the wake of ongoing concerns by regulators about the inability of some wastewater treatment plants to handle fracking fluids that sometimes contains elevated levels of radium and other radioactive materials.

A natural gas rig near the entrance to Battlement Mesa on Colorado's Western Slope (David O. Williams photo).

The New York Times, in a series last February, exposed the problem and revealed deep concerns by state regulators in places like Pennsylvania, where drilling in the Marcellus Shale has come with a wave of fracking that has overwhelmed some wastewater treatment facilities.

The process, used in about 90 percent of all natural gas wells, injects up to 1 million gallons of water underground under very high pressure. The water, which includes sand and a chemical cocktail that often remains secret for proprietary reasons, forces open rock and sand formations and frees up more gas or oil.

In Colorado, U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis have been trying to pass the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act that would compel oil and gas companies to publicly disclose chemical constituents. DeGette has also raised the alarm about the use of diesel fuel in fracking mixtures.

Most fracking fluids are treated and recycled or injected into disposal wells deep beneath the groundwater table. Those wells are now a source of controversy because scientists believe they could be linked to earthquake swarms in places like Arkansas, where several wells were shut down recently.

In Colorado, where regulators have been working through a backlog of old spill enforcement cases, officials have said disclosure of fracking fluid chemicals won’t necessarily stop accidental leaks associated with faulty pipelines, well casings or pit liners meant to keep fluids stored for reuse from leaking into groundwater.

The EPA conducted a study of fracking before Congress voted to exempt the process from the Safe Drinking Water Act when it passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Now the EPA is conducting what many scientists hope will be a much more thorough examination of the process, including using a test area in Colorado. The agency is also considering drafting tougher air quality standards for fracking operations.

The state of Colorado expects to draft its own fracking-specific disclosure regulations by the end of the year.

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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