Activists demand ban on fracking wastewater

Say DRBC regulations fall short

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 12/7/21

DELAWARE RIVER — A long-standing debate over the Delaware River and the extraction of natural gas has been reignited.

At the beginning of this year, environmentalists in the region scored a …

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Activists demand ban on fracking wastewater

Say DRBC regulations fall short

Posted

DELAWARE RIVER — A long-standing debate over the Delaware River and the extraction of natural gas has been reignited.

At the beginning of this year, environmentalists in the region scored a monumental victory when the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) voted to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the basin. Although it was cause for either celebration or lamentation at the time—depending on one’s views about natural gas drilling—that historic vote proved not to be the final word on the subject.

Fracking is a process in which drillers blast water, chemicals and sand at high pressures to fracture tight, underground rock formations. These deep, underground fractures allow trapped natural gas to escape and flow toward earth’s surface, later to be converted and used as an energy source. For years, natural gas developers had been eyeing the basin—specifically Wayne County, PA—as an untapped, potentially lucrative resource for drilling.

Since the initial ban in March, activists throughout Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware have since been waiting on the interstate commission to release its regulations regarding the export and import of fracking-related water and wastewater into and out of the Delaware. Environmentalists promised to settle for nothing less than unequivocal bans on all fracking-related activities and byproducts.

“We do want not our watershed to be used to help sacrifice other communities and other rivers to the fracking industry... We don’t want fracking anywhere,” Maya van Rossum, chief executive officer of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said at the time.

Recently, the commission released a draft of how it plans to tie up these loose ends. But groups like the Riverkeeper say these newly proposed rules don’t go far enough, and they’re calling for stricter guidelines.

Fracking requires immense volumes of water to accomplish, and a significant portion of that water comes back as wastewater, a highly salty brine. According to a 2019 report in Chemical & Engineering News, a single horizontal fracking well uses on average about 45 million liters (about 12 million gallons) of water. And while it’s difficult to pinpoint just how much of the salty wastewater the process creates, it’s been estimated that the oil and gas industry produces something in the neighborhood of 3,400 billion liters (nearly 900 billion gallons) of it each year.

All that water must come from somewhere, and all that waste must have someplace to go. As a neighbor to the highly productive fracking area—the Susquehanna River Basin—the Delaware watershed could potentially be a convenient provider and recipient of both.

The DRBC’s current draft regulations prohibits outright the “discharge” of wastewater to lands or water within the basin, stating that “the discharge of wastewater from [fracking] poses significant, immediate and long-term risks to the basin’s water resources.” However, the commission took a less definitive stance on exporting the basin’s water elsewhere and importing wastewater from other fracking sites into the basin.

The draft regulations “discourage” both practices, but leave the door open for approval on a case-by-case basis.

“The commission’s policy has been to discourage the exportation of water from the basin… [but] the commission may approve an exportation of water if the export is needed to serve a straddled or adjacent public water system; if it is required on a temporary, short-term or emergency basis to meet public health and safety needs; or if it comprises an exportation of wastewater,” the draft states on exports.

And on imports, “Although importations of wastewater are ‘discouraged,’ they may be permitted after careful consideration to ensure that available alternatives have been evaluated.”

That’s too much gray area for comfort, activists have said.

“The regulations are riddled with loopholes… this leaves a gaping hole,” Tracy Carluccio, deputy director at the Riverkeeper, said during a recent Zoom session. “Why would we ban fracking, and ban the discharge of wastewater from fracking, but not ban all the pollution from fracking? It simply doesn’t make sense.”

Hoping to organize a strong, coherent response in opposition to the current regulations, the Riverkeeper has published a list of main salient points to oppose the regulations in their current form. The potential for air pollution, the inherent risks of leaks and spills involved in transporting and storing wastewater, loose definitions around what constitutes “hazardous materials” and concerns about depriving the area of its own resources through potential water exports are among the group’s top concerns.

“The bottom line is right now, there is a zero percent chance there’s going to be a wastewater spill in the watershed, and that’s because it’s not permitted here,” Karen Feridun, founder of Berks Gas Truth, said during the Riverkeeper Zoom session. “Why would the DRBC cede that ground, why would they take away that important protection?”

The DRBC will hear oral feedback on the proposed regulations on Wednesday, December 15 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and again from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. The agency is accepting written comments through February 28 until 5 p.m.

More information is available at https://www.nj.gov/drbc.

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