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Coast Guard Moves to Approve Barging of Hazardous Fracking Waste on Major Rivers

(Photo: Daniel Foster / Flickr)

The Coast Guard is moving forward with a proposal that would allow barges to transport large amounts of hazardous and radioactive wastewater from fracking operations on America’s major rivers.

After studying the issue at the request of the fracking industry, the Coast Guard recently released proposed regulations for fracking wastewater barging. A public comment period on the proposal runs through November 29, 2013.

Hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking,” is the controversial natural gas and oil extraction technique that produces millions of gallons of wastewater laced with toxic chemicals as well as radioactive materials that occur naturally deep underground. Wastewater from the Marcellus Shale, a heavily fracked formation under much of Pennsylvania, is known to contain elevated levels of radium and other radioactive elements.

The fracking industry has been shipping the wastewater from fracking fields in the Marcellus region for disposal in Ohio, Texas and Louisiana by truck and rail. And now the industry wants to barge large quantities of wastewater on major rivers such as the Ohio and Mississippi. Fracking and disposal firms claim that barges have a much better safety record than trucks and other methods of waste transport, but environmentalists fear that a leak or spill on a major waterway could contaminate drinking water supplies for millions of people.

Under the proposal, the Coast Guard can require barge owners to test wastewater to identify hazardous chemicals and determine if the waste meets specific radiation limits. Operators must keep records of the analysis for two years and make them available to the Coast Guard upon request. Information from hazardous-material reports would be available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, but the identities of “proprietary” chemicals would not be available to the public.

The fracking industry considers such “proprietary” chemicals to be trade secrets and has fought to keep them exempt from reporting requirements in regulations across the country. Environmentalists have pushed back, arguing that the chemical makeup of fracking fluids and wastewater should be made public and available to doctors, researchers, public health officials and emergency responders.

“In the worst case scenario, should a leak or spill occur … should contamination occur, the response is going to be that much more challenging if they don’t know the exact components of the material,” said Erika Staaf, a clean-water advocate with the Pittsburgh-based group PennEnvironment.

Staaf said that even small amounts of the hazardous chemicals found in fracking wastewater – such as benzene and toluene – can contaminate large amounts water in America’s major rivers and cannot be filtered out by conventional drinking water filters.

“As water consumers, how are we to know what to do?” said Staaf, who added that the Coast Guard should have held public meetings about the proposal across the country and allowed the public more than 30 days to submit comments.

The Coast Guard has its own concerns with barging frack water. In its proposal, the Coast Guard points out that, over time, radioactive isotopes may accumulate in large tanks on the barges and pose a threat to workers. The proposal includes protections for workers, including requiring barge operators to keep radiation monitors on hand and ensure that radiation levels are below federal safety standards before allowing workers enter the tanks.

The proposal already has stirred up controversy in Ohio, where millions of gallons of fracking wastewater from Pennsylvania is shipped to be injected into underground disposal wells. In 2013, about a dozen environmental activists were arrested during a confrontational protest at a wastewater storage and transport terminal on the Ohio River operated by the Texas-based company Greenhunter Energy. The firm has pushed for the Coast Guard to approve frack waste barging so it can transport large amounts of waste on the Ohio River.

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