Natural gas drillers asked to revamp wastewater dumping systems

A natural gas-powered electricity-generating plant in Middletown, Conn.

Steve Chiotakis: Natural gas drillers in Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale region had a deadline to meet today. At the request of state regulators, drillers agreed to find safer ways to dispose of their tainted wastewater. That's something they'd resisted for a long time.

From the Sustainability Desk, Marketplace's Sarah Gardner reports.


Sarah Gardner: Drilling for natural gas creates a lot of wastewater, and it's full of bromides. Salts, in other words. In western Pennsylvania, a lot of the wastewater went to sewage treatment plants that couldn't purify the stuff. Then those plants discharged it into rivers -- rivers used for drinking water.

Jan Jarrett: The bromides were reacting with the chlorine in the water treatment process to form a new substance that is carcinogenic.

Environmental advocate Jan Jarrett says for years, industry insisted the discharges were safe. But this discovery helped change their tune.

Matt Pitzarella is with Range Resources, one of the biggest drillers in the Marcellus Shale. His company lobbied other drillers to stop the practice.

Matt Pitzarella: If people don't trust this industry to do the right things, then a number of things will happen. Number one, the regulations will become more strict.

Number two, says Pitzarella, drillers won't get access to gas on private property.

Pitzarella: We can only drill for natural gas wells if people choose to enter into agreements with us to allow us to develop their natural gas.

Pitzarella says other industries, like coal, are also to blame for high bromide levels in Pennsylvania rivers. But intensifying media scrutiny means gas drillers can't afford to play defense all the time. Jan Jarrett says the drillers agreed voluntarily to either recycle their wastewater or send it to deep disposal wells.

So, Jarrett's motto? Trust but verify.

Jarrett: We are going to be independently pulling records and checking to see whether or not that indeed has happened.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency went one step further. It wants to know how and where the biggest drillers will dispose of their wastewater from now on. But for drillers, voluntary is one thing, federal directives are another. An industry spokeswoman said the EPA was "overstepping" its authority.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk.

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