Wastewater barge transportation draws controversy

April 9, 2013

The debate over whether wastewater from fracking operations should be shipped by barges has been stirring up public opinion for months.

Environmental groups worry that the wastewater carried by barges could pollute drinking water.

The debate over whether wastewater from fracking operations should be shipped by barges has been stirring up public opinion for months. Opponents of the idea claim that transporting wastewater via waterways is hazardous and could pose a threat to drinking water, while supporters of the plan argue that this method of transportation is just as safe as any other.

According to Reuters, allowing the wastewater to be shipped by barges may be closer to being approved, after a report from the U.S. Coast Guard that was sent to the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB), calling for approval of the plan. Still, even if the plan goes ahead, a public consultation would be held before it can be applied in practice. Energy experts commented that a possible approval of the barge issue could be interpreted as a signal about the direction of fracking regulation in the next few years.

The most fierce critics of the plan are environmental groups who have raised concerns that the wastewater carried by barges could pollute drinking water in case of an accident or a leak. Barges would be transporting a mix of liquids containing chemicals that could poison water and wildlife if they spill into waterways, Reuters noted. Fracking wastewater often contains chemicals added by drilling companies and may also contain heavy metals, as well as radium or other radioactive materials.

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Despite the fact that the OMB has not commented on the issue so far and has given no indication of when the plan could become a rule, the Coast Guard stated that it hoped transportation of fracking waste by barges would be allowed. Drilling companies believe that shipping wastewater by barges is a safe way to dispose of waste. One of these companies, GreenHunter Water LLC, explained that barges are a safer method of transport than the current methods for moving waste materials, like trains and trucks. The Texas-based company wants to use barges to take away the brine from its wells to be recycled or disposed of in injection wells and hopes that it would be allowed to do so in the near future.

At present, trucks carrying fracking waste from the natural gas drilling hub in the eastern states, Pennsylvania, travel all the way to Ohio, where the waste is injected in deep underground wells. James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, also believes that using barges would be an effective solution to the waste removal problem. There are commodities that are more complex in their composition but are still currently being shipped by barges with an excellent safety record, he explained. At present, petroleum products, such as gasoline, industrial acids and other chemicals, are being transported via waterways, Reuters pointed out.

However, Melissa English, the director of development at environmental group Ohio Citizen Action, claimed that the Ohio River, where companies want to barge the waste, is already polluted from various industries and a potential spill of a barge load might affect cities that depend on the river for drinking water.

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