Kingston is located just beyond the eastern edge of the underlying Marcellus Shale. This gift of geography would seem to exempt Kingstonians from the environmental woes associated with high-volume natural gas hydraulic fracturing, which may begin in the gas-rich shale formation next year with the lifting of the state’s temporary moratorium.
Yet the city potentially could be impacted. Proposed regulations developed by state Department of Conservation (DEC) for the high-volume hydraulic fracturing of the shale and other mineral reserves allow toxins-laden wastewater from the fracking wells to be treated at municipal wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs).
The regulations have been drawn up in tandem with the agency’s Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Impact Statement (SGEIS), issued in September. Kingston is included in an appendix to the SGEIS that lists municipalities with a sewage treatment plant whose State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) permit allows for treatment of industrial waste hauled to the plant and therefore has the capacity for “pretreatment” of the fracking waste. That means it’s not inconceivable gas-drilling companies could be contacting the plant operators about processing their wastewater.
Actually, it’s already happened. In early 2009, Kingston was approached by a natural gas drilling company about processing its waste. City Engineer Ralph Swenson said he rejected the request, based on the plant’s capacity. Around the same time, a handful of municipalities elsewhere in the state started treating gas-drilling wastewater in their sewage plants.
Environmental experts on hydro-fracking said that municipal WWTPs simply aren’t equipped to handle this type of industrial waste. Furthermore, DEC’s oversight of the plants that have already processed gas-drilling waste was extremely lax, according to one source, which doesn’t inspire confidence that the agency will be able to rigorously regulate a practice that could destroy water quality in much of the state.
The sewage treatment plants that did accept fracking wastewater from Pennsylvania drilling operations weren’t equipped to monitor and remove radioactivity, which has been found to be a byproduct of the waste. (The radioactivity is from radium, which is a carcinogen when ingested from drinking water or by eating contaminated fish or farm produce.) Waste treated at the Cayuga Heights treatment plant, outside Ithaca, flowed into Cayuga Lake, a source of drinking water to the surrounding communities.
Radiation in Pennsylvania
Section 750-3.12 of the proposed regulations, entitled “Disposal of HVHF flowback and production water,” is six pages of detailed requirements which strike the layperson, at least, as impressively thorough. The DEC outlines the “fluid disposal plan” treatment operators would have to have approved first before they could accept the waste. Applicants would be required to demonstrate they have the necessary treatment capacity. They would have to do a “headworks analysis,” which would require them to analyze the compounds in the wastewater. The plant would also be subject to ongoing monitoring by the DEC.