To Float Or Not To Float The Waste…That Is The Question

Wastewater trucks near the Susquehanna River

Wastewater trucks near the Susquehanna River| Carol Manuel

One thing you can say about America – for better or worse, we are a nation with no shortage of innovators, problem solvers, and grand schemers.  Following the latest trends to improve efficiency of natural gas development can be a never-ending pursuit of ideas and solutions.  Today I heard about a concept that I thought I would share to see what people think.

If you have been following the saga of shale gas development in the eastern U.S., then you likely have heard that Pennsylvania in particular has an issue with wastewater disposal of flowback and produced water from natural gas wells.  Currently, traditional wastewater treatment plants cannot treat the suite of chemicals present in shale wastewater.  The innovators have been working furiously on solutions to that problem. 

In the meantime, in many other states, most wastewater from oil and gas development is permanently injected into underground wells.  However, the geology in Pennsylvania is generally not supportive of this type of disposal.  [Side note:  Pennsylvania recently permitted the development of some wastewater disposal wells near high quality streams, which is certainly a concern.]

Nevertheless, facing this conundrum, and in response to a desire to reduce the cost of having to truck wastewater to other surrounding states, a new solution has been proposed. 

Float it away. 

That’s right- put it on a barge and send it away to magical disposal land.  Currently, the Coast Guard is considering whether to allow this practice on our nation’s waterways.  One of the biggest concerns, of course, is a barge collision that spills toxic chemicals into the river.  Considering we are talking about water supplies for major cities, such as Pittsburgh, this is not a concern that should be taken lightly. 

If you know anything about fracking, you have probably heard about disagreements over the disclosure requirements for the chemicals used to extract natural gas.  This factors into the Coast Guard’s consideration in this case, because they don’t actually know all of the chemicals that could potentially be contained in this wastewater that would be transported on our rivers.  How toxic is it?  Companies may claim trade secret protections and not disclose that information in many cases.

So, what do you think?  Does this proposal sound better or worse than trucking the wastewater across the region?  We would love to hear your thoughts.