Even though horizontal drilling in Marcellus shale has yet to begin in New York state, some communities are finding themselves faced with questions about how to handle drilling waste. A couple Pennsylvania Marcellus wells are already sending their drill cuttings to landfills in NY and at least one municipal wastewater treatment facility is accepting drilling waste fluids from vertically drilled wells. Over the past year, representatives from EPA and Penn State have suggested that underground injection wells may be the "safest" method for disposal of frack flowback and brine from Marcellus wells.
Currently there are six active injection wells in NY, and eight in PA. Ohio , with 159 active state-regulated injection wells, is concerned about the amount of wastewater expected from increased Marcellus drilling; the state is considering a 20-cents/barrel tax on out-of-state brine.
The good news, says Treichler, is that local governments have some say in where disposal wells can be sited. That is, if municipalities already have such laws in place. If they don't, then "they should waste no time in developing local legislation to regulate disposal wells," Treichler says.
What hydro-geologists need to know, Kappel says, are how porous the formation is, how permeable the layer is, and the thickness of the layer. They also need to know the locations of abandoned gas or oil – or even drinking water – wells in the area before injecting waste, because any unplugged wells could provide a conduit for waste fluid to contaminate groundwater.
“It is important that they do an injection test prior to any sustained liquid injection and observe the limits of injection capacity,” Kappel stressed. In one case a company tied to inject too much fluid into their wells. As the wells filled, they increased the pressure. Eventually their injections set off seismic activity.
“Municipalities may issue permits if their local laws require it or if zoning requires it” Treichler said. She encouraged all municipalities to adopt local laws without delay, as Marcellus drilling will produce a huge demand for disposal wells.