Thursday, September 19, 2013

Regulating TDS and Chloride Loadings from Oil and Gas Wastewater in Pennsylvania

Technological advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have led to increased production of unconventional natural gas (UNG) from deep shale formations such as the Marcellus Shale. Exploration and production involving hydraulic fracturing of shale formations across the country has become a controversial topic that has received a significant amount of media attention in recent years.

As engineers and scientists living in central Pennsylvania we have been closely following the development of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation and the associated environmental impacts. We have observed that one of the main environmental challenges facing the industry is how to handle and dispose of large quantities of water produced during the fracturing process.

Wastewater Disposal Impacts

One particular incident brought the potential impacts of UNG wastewater disposal to the forefront. In 2008, high concentrations of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) were found in the Monongahela River and follow-up studies indicated that wastewater high in TDS from UNG operations was being discharged to the river without effective treatment. Additional studies showed that high loads of TDS and chloride from improperly treated UNG wastewater were impacting the aquatic ecology of other surface waters. Efforts in recent years to reduce discharges of TDS and chloride by Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), drillers, and wastewater treatment plants have led to the belief by many in the state that regulations and voluntary commitments have curtailed high levels of TDS and chloride in wastewater being discharged to streams.

This summer, however, two operators of centralized waste treatment (CWT) facilities were in the news for discharging high TDS and chloride loads to streams. These publicized discharges piqued our interest in UNG wastewater disposal and we investigated why these incidents are still occurring. Our research into these CWT facilities revealed the following: (1) an exemption in Chapter 95 regulations enacted to limit discharges of TDS and chloride from treated UNG wastewater allows certain facilities to continue discharging effluent in exceedance of the new limits; and (2) EPA, DEP and non-profit groups are using alternative approaches to negotiate reductions in TDS and chloride loadings from these exempt facilities.

The Chapter 95 exemption 

DEP proposed wastewater treatment effluent standards for CWT facilities and Publically Owned Treatment Works (POTWs) that specifically targeted TDS and chloride. The rules went into effect August 21, 2010 under 25 Pa. Code § 95, commonly known as Chapter 95. The regulation only applied to new facilities or facilities undergoing expansion in capacity. Existing facilities with permits to treat oil and gas wastewater prior to the promulgation of Chapter 95 were exempt from the effluent standards. This exemption permitted these facilities to continue accepting both UNG and conventional oil and gas wastewater resulting in the discharge of effluent high in TDS and chloride often at hundreds of times the limits set in Chapter 95.

Alternative approaches

Due to the loophole in Chapter 95, EPA and DEP are using consent orders and agreements related to NPDES violations to push the new TDS and chloride limits on exempt facilities. In addition, lawsuits are being filed by citizens groups under the Clean Water Act and Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law to force facilities to stop accepting UNG wastewater. Here we provide a few examples of how these approaches are being implemented.

In May 2013, Fluid Recovery Services (FRS), operating three separate CWT facilities in the Allegheny River watershed, signed an Administrative Order for Compliance on Consent (AOCC) with EPA to settle historic and ongoing violations of NPDES permit effluent limitations at the Creekside, Josephine and Franklin facilities. As part of the AOCC, FRS was required by EPA to modify its facilities’ NPDES permits with the Chapter 95 TDS effluent limit of 500 mg/L as a monthly average. In addition, FRS agreed that effluent at the facilities would be considered “new and expanding mass loadings” and would follow all effluent limits set forth in Chapter 95 when its permits were renewed.

On July 18, 2013 Clean Water Action sent a Notice of Intent to File a Citizen Suit (NOI) to Waste treatment Corporation (WTC), a CWT plant operator, for “significant and ongoing violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA), the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law (CSL), and the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).” The violations stemmed from WTC’s acceptance and discharge of oil and gas wastewater to the Allegheny River in violation of its permit conditions. The NOI has a 60 day period in which WTC can respond to the allegations and attempt to settle the claims before a lawsuit is filed. At the time of writing the current status of the NOI and any potential settlement has not been made public.

In January 2012, the Municipal Authority of the City of McKeesport (McKeesport) settled a lawsuit with Clean Water Action and Three Rivers Waterkeeper alleging the McKeesport POTW was accepting and discharging UNG wastewater to the Monongahela River in violation of the Clean Water Act. In the settlement agreement, McKeesport stopped accepting UNG wastewater and is required to apply for a new permit if it wants to accept UNG or conventional oil and gas wastewater in the future.

Future Considerations

Until new or modified regulations are enacted, effluent with high levels of TDS and chloride will continue to be discharged into streams from exempt facilities unable to sufficiently treat oil and gas wastewater. In the meantime, anticipate more lawsuits and regulatory agreements to control loadings of TDS and chloride in order to prevent harm to Pennsylvania’s aquatic ecosystem. We will continue following and reporting on developments related to UNG wastewater disposal and any future regulation of wastewater from the oil and gas industry.

Submitted by Eric Chase, P.G.

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