EPA Planning Regulations on Wastewater From Shale Gas, Coalbed Methane Wells

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Alan Kovski

The Environmental Protection Agency will develop regulations to govern pretreatment of wastewater from shale gas wells before the water goes to a publicly owned wastewater treatment plant, EPA announced Oct. 20.

The agency said it also will write effluent guidelines and standards for the discharge of wastewater from coalbed methane extraction.

Those plans were part of a notice released by the agency in preliminary form on a schedule of program plans for effluent guidelines. The plans also drew questions from senators during a hearing later that day on Capitol Hill.

EPA said that in 2014, it will propose a rule under the Clean Water Act setting technology-based standards for pretreatment of water going from shale gas wells to publicly owned treatment plants. Such standards can have nationwide application, rather than requiring case-by-case federal and state and local collaboration on standards.

The agency said its effluent rule for waters released into streams from coalbed methane wells—often highly saline waters that can have a substantial impact on water ecosystems—will be proposed in 2013.

In addition, EPA said it plans to develop pretreatment requirements for dental amalgam to keep mercury out of sewer systems. (See related story in this issue.)

EPA Concerned About Dissolved Solids

State regulators and local officials usually have authority to regulate wastewater treatment plants and to adapt their regulations to local issues, but they can use help from EPA, said Cynthia Dougherty, director of EPA's Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, in an appearance Oct. 20 before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power.

EPA'S concern is with total dissolved solids entering the treatment plants, Dougherty told the senators. “There have been some issues in terms of bromide levels in particular,” she said.

Those issues have arisen most notably in Pennsylvania, where drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation has increased rapidly and where bromide levels in some rivers also have risen. Dougherty said the governor of Pennsylvania asked EPA to develop technology-based standards for pretreatment of shale gas wastewater.

Shale gas producers are not allowed to discharge effluents directly into rivers and streams. Their wastewater is either recycled, injected into underground wastewater deposits, or sent to water treatment plants.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) expressed curiosity about what regulations EPA would come up with for shale gas wastewater. Dougherty said EPA needs to delve into the subject and learn what treatment methods would be available.

Industry to Be Involved

An association of natural gas exploration and production companies greeted the news of the regulatory plans cautiously.

“Like all oversight of natural gas development, wastewater disposal is actively regulated at the state level,” said Daniel Whitten, spokesman for America's Natural Gas Alliance, in a statement released after EPA's announcement.

“We are already in contact with the agency and expect to be an active and vocal stakeholder in helping them determine what, if any, additional regulation is necessary and appropriate,” Whitten said.

Congress has required EPA to study the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. Fracturing, or “fracking,” is used especially in shale gas drilling to create fractures through which gas can flow to a well—but it also raises the prospect of fracturing fluids contaminating waters.

EPA's final study plan will be released shortly, Dougherty told the senators.

The subject of hydraulic fracturing was the focus of a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing Oct. 4 (193 DEN A-12, 10/5/11).

EPA's next step will be to invite public comment on its announced regulatory planning schedule for its effluent guideline program plan. Comments will be taken for 30 days after a final version of the notice is published in the Federal Register.


A prepublication copy of EPA's Final 2010 Effluent Guidelines Program Plan is available at http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/lawsguidance/cwa/304m/upload/Notice-of-Final-2010-Effluent-Guidelines-Program-Plan.pdf .