Federal regulations are needed to protect water from fracking waste
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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed federal regulations to establish pretreatment standards of performance for oil and gas wastewaters. These proposed standards are crucial to protect both public drinking water sources as well as workers at publicly owned treatment works (POTWs).


While growing a robust domestic energy supply is a national security interest, ensuring clean, safe drinking water is also an elemental human right and need. Promulgating pretreatment regulations for new and existing oil and gas sources that limit discharge of pollutants is an extremely important step in maintaining public health and safety.

Drilling in the Marcellus Shale using unconventional technology such as hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) transformed the East Coast landscape. Large swathes of rural agrarian land are now peppered with oil and gas operations that require vast quantities of water mixed with sand and a list of unnamed proprietary chemicals. In addition to added chemicals, flowback water from oil and gas operations typically include total dissolved solids (TDS) and radionuclides from the earth.

Discard of contaminated produced and flowback waters from oil and gas operations presents an important challenge that must be addressed to protect public health. Studies demonstrate significant environmental and health risks associated with current disposal methods for flowback and produced waters. Underground injection is strongly correlated with increased seismic activity. TDS are elevated in waters by POTWs accepting oil and gas wastes. Technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials (TENORM) are often found in wastewaters and in muds, sludges and fill from oil and gas operations sent to landfills.

The World Nuclear Association reports that TENORM from produced waters in the Marcellus Shale may be "300 times the Nuclear Regulatory Commission limits for industrial wastewater discharge."

Americans cannot rely on state oil and gas laws to protect the water supply of downstream neighbors. Federal regulation is needed. For example, although Pennsylvania promulgated wastewater treatment effluent standards that targeted TDS and chloride in 2010, Chapter 95 regulations of the Pennsylvania state code only applied to new or renovated facilities. Facilities permitted prior to the promulgation of Chapter 95 were exempt. POTWs in Pennsylvania can — indeed, must — continue accepting oil and gas wastewater from grandfathered facilities even if acceptance results in a discharge of effluent high in TDS and exceeding the limits set by Chapter 95.

Federal pretreatment standards should clearly specify that TENORM is a regulated pollutant requiring discharge no greater than levels accepted by EPA and the World Health Organization as safe. To protect workers, drilling operators should be required to survey wastewater for radioactivity before delivery to the POTW.

Federal pretreatment standards should not differentiate between conventional and unconventional oil and gas drilling operations. Rather, the standards should require limited discharge of pollutants from oil and gas operations, regardless of source. The EPA's emphasis should be on ensuring that oil and gas operators pretreat wastes to ensure water safety and not on what type of oil and gas operation is delivering the wastes. Simply said, all wastes delivered to POTWs from oil and gas operations should be subject to pretreatment standards regardless of whether the source is conventional or unconventional wells.

With regard to effective date, all discharges from oil and gas operations should be covered. The lesson from Pennsylvania Chapter 95 is that if existing sources are excluded, the public may be left without adequate protection of the water supply.

EPA regulations establishing pretreatment standards for wastes coming from oil and gas operations are an important step in protecting both the nation's water supply and the workers who keep our water supply safe.

Geltman is the author of 17 books on environmental and natural resources policy and an associate professor and program director for Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Public Health and the Urban School of Public Health at Hunter College.