ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A new report from an environmental group says New York's oversight of waste disposal from existing natural gas-drilling operations is too lax, making it virtually impossible to track how much waste is produced and how drillers dispose of it.
The report released Friday by Environmental Advocates of New York examines Department of Environmental Conservation records related to 100 of the state's 6,628 active gas wells. It finds industry reporting forms provide little detail on where drilling wastewater was sent and whether it actually got to the intended disposal site.
New York has had a moratorium on shale gas wells using horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, since it began a review of the technology in 2008. But vertical wells, using lower volume fracking, are still allowed, as they have been for decades. Both types of well use chemically treated water at high pressure to crack stone and release gas into a well.
Fracking produces toxic wastewater that includes chemicals used in fracking as well as naturally occurring contaminants such as salts, heavy metals and radioactive particles. The amount of waste produced by vertical wells is a fraction of that produced by horizontal ones.
The report notes that industry reporting forms obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request were vague about where wastewater went, with 16 drillers saying only that it was "hauled away." In four cases, drillers said fluids may have been sent to a landfill but gave no details. Twenty-seven drillers said they would dispose of drilling fluids by hauling them to an approved facility and/or by road spreading for deicing or dust control. On 25 forms, drillers said they dispose of waste at "approved" facilities with no further details.
While numerous newly formed groups are seeking a ban on fracking, saying no amount of regulation can make it safe, Environmental Advocates has promoted effective regulation and strong oversight.
DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis disputed the report and provided figures stating that of 17.63 million gallons of gas-drilling wastewater produced in 2010 and disposed of in New York, 6.8 million gallons was spread on roads; 10.5 million sent to public treatment facilities; 0.3 million reused; and .03 million gallons was disposed of in injection wells.
DeSantis said drilling wastewater accounted for less than 8 percent of the 306 million gallons of industrial wastewater transported in New York in 2010.
All wastewater processed at public treatment plants must be tested for chemical makeup and the plant would have to demonstrate the capability to treat it, DeSantis said. No facilities in New York are currently permitted to accept wastewater from high-volume hydraulic fracturing.
In proposed regulations, DEC sets stricter requirements for wastewater from horizontal wells, with detailed record-keeping similar to that used for medical waste. Environmental Advocates recommends that even stricter rules, set for material classified as hazardous waste, be imposed for all gas wells.
Legislation proposed in the state Senate and Assembly would classify waste from oil and natural gas production as "hazardous," making it subject to the cradle-to-grave tracking, handling and disposal measures required for other hazardous wastes.
The Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York opposes that legislation, saying it would jeopardize its recycling efforts and development of new on-site treatment technologies.
Disposal of fracking wastewater has been a contentious issue in Pennsylvania, with drillers early on bringing millions of gallons of the briny waste to waste treatment facilities that dump into rivers from which drinking water is taken downstream. Since last year, when a voluntary state moratorium was declared, records show the Marcellus drilling industry recycles most of its waste. Because of a loophole, however, other well drillers are apparently still dumping at treatment plants since levels of pollutants have not gone down.
Fracking chemicals in the wastewater may include known carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde. Wastewater can contain bromides, which react with disinfecting chemicals at water treatment plants to produce a compound linked to cancer and birth defects.
In Pennsylvania in 2010, health experts raised alarms when they found soaring levels of bromides in rivers that are major sources of drinking water. Virtually all Marcellus drillers stopped using such plants at the state's request.
"We could do better here by just preventing such problems before they occur," said Katherine Nadeau of Environmental Advocates. "The stakes are so high."