Agency to Set Standards on Fracking Waste Water
The Environmental Protection Agency, responding to concerns about potential water contamination from natural-gas drilling, said it would develop standards for disposing of waste water from the process.
The decision comes amid questions involving the drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves injecting large amounts of water and chemicals deep underground to unleash natural gas trapped in shale formations. Much of that water, often laden with salt and chemicals and known as "flowback," returns to the surface and requires disposal.
Some waste water is reused or injected into underground wells, and some is sent to waste-water treatment plants. In a statement, the EPA said many treatment plants "are not properly equipped to treat this type of waste water," and said it would consider standards that must be met before water can be sent to a treatment facility.
The rules, which the agency said would be proposed by 2014, would be among the first federal regulations aimed at fracking's potential impact on water. Environmentalists and people who live near fracking operations have raised questions about possible contamination to surface water if waste water is improperly disposed.
The EPA is conducting a study to determine fracking's impact on water, including whether it has contaminated water supplies.
"The worry is that the flowback is contaminated, whether it's salt, minerals, chemicals, hydrocarbons, and that it's being released into the environment in a way that may harm the public," said Amy Mall, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmentalist group.
Industry groups reacted coolly to the potential federal rules, saying states are better-suited to deal with disposal issues.
"Like all oversight of natural-gas development, waste-water disposal is actively regulated at the state level," said Daniel Whitten, a spokesman for America's Natural Gas Alliance. He said state professionals "are best qualified to assess the unique geological characteristics of the shale plays in their region and the appropriate water disposal requirements that arise from those conditions."
Rules on waste-water disposal vary by state, and earlier this year several states, including Pennsylvania, urged the EPA to update its waste-water disposal standards. Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA has authority for waste-water discharges to surface waters and municipal sewage-treatment plants.
The move comes as the EPA's regulatory agenda faces a broad attack from Republican lawmakers and industry groups, who say the agency's rules are hampering the economic recovery and impeding development of oil and gas. In announcing its effort Thursday, the EPA tried to blunt criticism by praising natural gas and promising that any new industry requirements would be based on "economically achievable technologies."
"The president has made clear that natural gas has a central role to play in our energy economy," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "We can protect the health of American families and communities at the same time we ensure access to all of the important resources that make up our energy economy."
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