Sunday, June 20, 2010

Legal Action

Gas Drilling Wastewater in the Monongahela River 11/10/09

There is a gas rush in Pennsylvania. The PA Department of Environmental Protection ("DEP") issued more than 1,300 permits for gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale this year, up from 97 in 2007. Extracting gas from the shale involves the use of toxic drilling muds and a stimulation process known as "hydraulic fracturing," whereby millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals are pumped at high pressure into horizontal wells to break up low-permeability rock and release trapped gas. About half of the injected fluids are recovered, along with high levels of total dissolved solids ("TDS"), heavy metals, and normally occurring radioactive materials that leach out of underground formations. The wastes from drilling muds, hydraulic fracturing fluids, and brines that emerge during the production phase cannot be discharged safely into the waters of the Commonwealth without extensive treatment.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania does not have enough treatment capacity for all of the gas wastes. In fact, DEP has admitted that there is not enough water in the entire state to absorb all of the contaminated drilling wastes that will be generated over the next two years. Instead of reducing the pace of drilling, however, DEP is expediting approval of new and modified wastewater treatment plants ("WWTPs") without legally required protections for public health and the environment. Under heavy political pressure from the Governor and other elected officials, DEP is authorizing WWTPs to discharge inadequately treated wastes into both pristine cold water fisheries and rivers that already are impaired, in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law.

On behalf of Clean Water Action, Earthjustice and the University of Pittsburgh Environmental Law Clinic have filed an appeal of an agreement between DEP and Shallenberger Construction, Inc., which plans to construct and operate a new WWTP for gas development wastes that would discharge into the Monongahela River -- the drinking water supply for approximately 350,000 people. The River has exceeded water quality standards for TDS repeatedly over more than a year, but the agreement would allow long-term discharges from the plant without any treatment for TDS or any limitation on TDS levels. The agreement also fails to impose any effluent limitations, or even mere reporting requirements, for a raft of toxic chemicals that DEP has identified as parameters of concern for Marcellus Shale gas wastes. CWA's appeal is the first challenge of any permit for a gas drilling WWTP in Pennsylvania, and its resolution may set the standard for dozens of permits currently in the pipeline