Millions of gallons of chemical wastewater are complicating the already-volatile debate over hydrofracking in New York.
The unavoidly contaminated wastewater cannot be treated at normal sewage or water treatment facilities. Standard treatment facilities can remove bacteria and some toxic metals. But the major problem for hydrofracking wastewater is a four-letter word: salt.
“Drilling wastewater, for the most part, can’t be treated to remove salt,” said Donald Siegel, an earth science professor at Syracuse University.
If not treated properly, Siegel said, salt fluids can have widespread and lasting environmental effects, especially on freshwater plants.
Hydraulic fracturing — known as “hydrofracking” — uses a pressurized mixture of water and chemicals to blast through rock underground. In 2010, the New York State Assembly put a moratorium on the controversial practice, until more environmental studies could be completed.
Opponents argue the hydrofracking fluids contain harsh chemicals that will pollute the environment near drilling areas. Supporters maintain the environmental effects would be minimal and that gas drilling would spur the regional economy.
To properly treat hydrofracking fluids, New York has only two public facilities with the necessary technology. Both are both north of Buffalo, in North Towanda and Niagara Falls. Wastewater would either be trucked to one of these facilities or transported out of state.
Complicating matters, Niagara Falls has banned all natural gas-drilling activity, including transport of drilling wastewater. In effect, wastewater cannot be treated at this site although it has the technology.
In Onondaga County, local officials say they have no plans to upgrade public facilities to handle hydrofracking wastewater.
In New York state, hydrofracking operations would use 9 billion gallons of water a year, according to a study by the Department of Environmental Conservation. The department regulates hydrofracking activities. Department officials say gas companies must know where wastewater will be treated before given permits to drill.
That requirement has become a Catch-22 for would-be hydrofrackers. Gas companies cannot drill until they get permits and cannot get permits until they have a place to treat the wastewater.
Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest drilling companies in the northeast, is trying to solve the dilemma with local filtration tanks to treat its gas drilling wastewater, said a company spokesman. Chesapeake Energy recycles most of that wastewater. But the company must truck out some wastewater for filtration and disposal at facilities that can remove the salt from the wastewater.
In Pennsylvania, where hydrofracking activity is legal and regulated, specialized private companies have stepped in to treat the troublesome wastewater. One of those is Hydro Recovery LP. It has announced plans to expand its Blossburg, Pa., water-recycling plant to meet the growing needs of the natural gas industry.
“When given the option, natural gas companies choose to treat and reuse their liquid waste streams rather than dispose of them,” Chris Wunz, chief operating officer of Hydro Recovery, said in a press release on March 22.
Hydro Recovery LP has no plans to open treatment facilities in New York, according a company spokesperson.
Under pressure from environmental groups, New York lawmakers have called for an independent health study on the effects of hydrofracking. Included in the review will be the transport and treatment of contaminated wastewater.
(Jared Kraham is a junior with dual majors in political science and broadcast journalism.)
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