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.
Spills on land are easier to control. When wastewater pipelines cross rivers, wetlands, or streams, state environmental laws may require special precautions be taken in order to protect watersheds. But it is not clear what precautions would be necessary under state or federal law if frack water were to be shipped on the nations’ waterways.
Proponents of the plan point out that a single barge can carry as much wastewater as 125 trucks, which generally haul 80 to 150 barrels at a time. This means that tailpipe emissions would be slashed. And truck accidents are far more common than barging accidents.
But the barges’ massive size is a double-edged sword; because barges can haul up to 10,000 barrels per trip, a single accident on the waterways could be disastrous.
On January 27, two barges crashed into a bridge  on the Mississippi river, causing an oil spill from a ruptured fuel tank carrying 80,000 gallons of light sweet crude and leading to a partial shutdown of the lower Mississippi's shipping traffic and a backup of over 800 barges. Cleanup efforts are still underway  on the Mississippi -- but while oil can be partly contained with booms or skimmed from the surface of waterways, what happens if fracking wastewater, laced with hundreds of different contaminants, mixes into the rivers people get their drinking water from?
Much ink has been spilled over the potential for fracking to contaminate underground water supplies through methane migration. EPA recently was caught bowing to pressure  from drilling company Range Resources to drop its investigation into this type of aquifer contamination in Texas, for example.
But there’s been an inordinate amount of focus on the chemicals that go in the well, and far less attention paid to what comes out. After all, what makes this form of drilling unique is the massive amounts of toxic wastewater that fracking produces. This wastewater not only carries the chemicals that drillers deliberately inject into the ground during fracking, but also naturally-occurring elements that are radioactive, carcinogenic , or poisonous if consumed.
When most industries handle toxic waste, they’re subject to strict regulation. Hazardous material handling laws require robust tracking of waste and special handling from cradle to grave. But under federal law, oil and gas drilling waste is exempt  from these rules because it doesn’t count as “hazardous material” under the law. So regulating it is left to the states.
This means that every time a shale boom arrives in a new region, state officials must climb a steep learning curve to handle the unique problems created by all of this wastewater. Ohio isn’t the only place that’s on the cusp of drilling -- in California there's a slowly emerging effort  to tap these shale formations, for example.
Pennsylvania, of course, offers a great example of how not to do it. The back story behind how this state handles their wastewater is exhibit #1 in this cautionary lesson. State regulators have struggled to accurately track what happens to the waste after it leaves the wellpad. And while drillers have at times claimed to be recycling at least 90 percent of the waste, independent analysis  has found these claims to be overblown.
It didn’t need to be this way. In 2009, Pennsylvania regulators planned to require a manifest system for frack water, which would require it to be tracked like haz mat. But these plans were scrapped after industry lobbying. Three of the senior regulators who ditched those plans went to work  for the oil and gas industry after leaving the Department of Environmental Protection.
So now, it's entirely possible for truckers to leave the spigots on the back of the tankers open and to make the water disappear on rainy days en route. Fines for illegal dumping are often cheaper than the cost of legal disposal.
Sometimes haulers have been caught. One Pennsylvania wastewater hauler was convicted  last year of instructing his employees to leave wastewater valves open, and even constructed a pipeline  that directly carried toxic waste from a garage to a river, and the company owner was sentenced to probation. The state’s lack of a manifest system meant that his employees could get away with simply “loosing” the waste for a long time.
The details on how this company operated came to light when employees publicly described them. But local residents had long suspected something was amiss. In its first 6 months of operation, EPA’s “Eyes on Drilling” tip line received roughly half a dozen complaints  about truckers leaving valves open as they drove down back roads.
On a river: who would notice if a tanker showed up with less than it left with?
Other dangerous chemicals are currently shipped by barge. But most hazardous material shipments involve single chemicals, while frackwater can be a mix of a wide range of substances, some mundane and others highly toxic, making the Coast Guard’s review more challenging, agency officials have said.
Another factor that makes fracking brine unique is a different kind of threat: the risk that the barges themselves could be contaminated.
Marcellus wastewater contains high levels of radium, barium, strontium and other naturally occurring elements. The radium and barium are drawn to each other, and form a flaky substance that pipeline companies call pipe-scale. This pipe-scale  can concentrate enough radium in a single place that the pipes can be a radioactivity exposure threat . Regulators from EPA and OSHA have crafted federal rules on how this radioactive pipe should be handled and disposed. But barge-operators will need to contend with these dangers if they decide to haul frackwater.
Economics factors add to the pressure from drillers to allow the shipments: barge transportation is expected to cost only 10 percent of what it costs to ship frackwater by truck.
Coast Guard officials have said that they expect to conclude their analysis within the next few months.
But some in the region remain concerned. Pennsylvania State Sen. Jim Ferlo has been vocally objecting to GreenWater Hunter’s plans.
"[G]iven the controversial nature of barging frack fluid and the fact that it has not been studied or given any final review by regulatory agencies, let alone the broader public," Sen. Ferlo wrote  in a Dec. 28 memo to the head of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, "I take great exception to the notion that the formal Commission is in support of this clearly dangerous practice that could adversely affect river quality, commerce and the health of thousands of people."
Photo Credit: Pittsburgh riverfront with large barge in motion  from Shutterstock.