Monday, October 31, 2011

Treating Hydro-Fracking Wastewater at Niagara Falls: Not Now, Maybe Later

At a public meeting of the Niagara Falls Water Board on October 27, the third meeting in two months, speakers again raised concern about the Board's proposal to accept, treat and discharge hydro-fracking wastewater derived from shale-gas drilling into the Niagara River.

Wastewater from hydro-fracking (a.k.a. fracking) contains chemicals added before drilling as well as toxic and radioactive chemicals extracted from shale. Wastewater is pumped back to the surface into exposed pits [see image], and then pumped into trucks for transport to other sites for treatment. Treatment facilities in Pennsylvania, where drilling is ongoing, have proven ineffective in removing all chemicals, some of which are known to cause cancer and other health problems. Also, brine, far more salty than ocean water, can corrode treatment facility equipment and has turned up in drinking water.

The Niagara Gazette reported that Water Board Chairman Michael McNally informed the speakers at the public meeting of the Board’s position of not accepting hydro-fracking or any wastewater associated with it.

“The Board’s position is we are not accepting anything relating to hydro-fracking or any of its spoils,” he said. “But we appreciate your input as it gives us more information to work with."

In a followup report on the October 27 meeting, Water Board Executive Director Paul Drof clarified the Board's position on fracking wastewater.

“Right now, no facility in New York state is permitted to accept fracking wastewater,” he said. “Their edict is there is no one approved to take fracking water, so no one does. It’s not illegal because no one does it.”

“The treatment of trucked-in waste has been done in Niagara Falls over the last 20 years,” he said. “It’s something we do routinely. This is just another candidate for treatment. That’s all it is at this point.” Drof added that public input on the matter is appreciated as it gives the Board more insight into what actions they’ll take later.

Canadians are also concerned about the possibility that fracking wastewater would be treated in Niagara Falls, NY, since the Niagara River borders their country and drains into Lake Ontario, which is a source of drinking water for millions of people in Canada.

The Council of Canadians sent a letter to the Water Board requesting they scrap the fracking wastewater proposal to protect the Great Lake. The Council is also advocating that the town council of Niagara-on-the-Lake take action to protect the Great Lakes Basin. A town councilor will introduce a resolution today calling for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and the treatment of fracking wastewater within the Great Lakes Basin.

An association of mayors on both sides of the Great Lakes is tracking the issue. "The position we've taken so far, until we get more information, is that nothing be done in terms of the hydro-fracking that could in any way contaminate the lakes, the St. Lawrence basin and the underground aquifers," said St. Catharines Mayor Brian McMullan, who chairs the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.

A Niagara Falls Water Board spokesman said the Board is waiting for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to bring down rules on drilling shale and fracking water treatment. He added that it's not clear if the treatment plant will need costly upgrades to handle the fracking water, and it's possible the venture will be too expensive to pursue. 

Permitting by the DEC was intended originally to begin in early 2012 but it was further delayed last week. DEC Commissioner Joe Martens raised doubts that the state will be ready to issue permits next year. Martens said the Governor's Advisory Panel on High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing will miss its planned report deadline since they still have no estimates on what resources will be needed by four major state agencies: Health, Transportation, Agriculture & Markets, and Public Service. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has only just begun developing national standards for treating wastewater discharged from gas drilling. They propose to complete the rules by 2014, and the time for passage into law is uncertain. Also, the discharge of treated water into the Niagara River, and other rivers that flow into the Great Lakes, creates a need for international agreements between the U.S. and Canada, which may extend the time frame even further.

So even if treating fracking wastewater at Niagara Falls were found to be feasible, affordable and safe, and even if a massive transportation plan could be developed to move billions of gallons of the hazardous wastewater to Niagara Falls, it could be a long time before the plan is actually carried out, if ever.

The agencies involved should not be rushed. They need to allow plenty of time for investigations, deliberations, and input from the public. The gas will still be there. The safety of our drinking water and the protection public health must come first, and they are unquestionably worth the time.

For earlier posts about Fracking at Re-ENERGIZE BUFFALO, click here.

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