Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Is "Recycling Waste Fluids" Just Another Name for Disposal?

pumping water from Susquehanna at Ulster, PA
Three weeks ago I posted a brief review on how Range Resources is re-using flowback and frack waste fluids in their drilling process. The idea sounds great: re-use, recycle and reduce the need for pumping millions of gallons of water from our streams and rivers.

But while industry engineers rave about the technology, some people living near recycling operations aren’t so ecstatic. Since that post, I heard from one woman living in the Barnett Shale play who described a local recycling facility.

Fountain Quail, a partner in the Williamsport Eureka facility (which is the one Range currently uses to clarify their frack fluids) operates a similar facility located in the midst of drilling sites just north of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“It stinks,” said the Texas resident. She described the odor as an offensive mix of diesel and chemicals that smells like stagnant water. The idea of using well-site recycling might work in isolated, rural areas she said, but the odors are evident from as far away as 1,000 feet.

“You wouldn’t want to live nearby,” she said. Already many people have raised concerns about the cumulative impact of emissions from compressors and other facilities; we should add recycling facilities to that list.

Then there is the question of whether diluting and reusing flowback to drill wells is a legitimate use for drilling waste fluids. “Why isn’t re-injecting flowback fluids into a well regulated under UIC?” asks Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University.

UIC refers to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Underground Injection Control program which regulates disposal of oil and gas drilling wastes in deep disposal wells.

“Congress established the UIC program to protect drinking water,” Ingraffea emphasized in a recent phone conversation. Under the UIC program, drilling wastes are injected into class II disposal wells. EPA regulates these class II wells, limiting the pressure and volume of waste fluid injected into disposal wells.

More importantly, EPA requires the company to demonstrate that injected wastes will not come into contact with any groundwater. That means the company has to identify all abandoned wells in the area and make sure they are plugged properly – otherwise injected waste fluids may find a pathway to contaminate drinking water.

So here’s the conundrum, says Ingraffea: while the EPA strictly regulates how fluids are injected into a deep disposal well, no one is regulating how those same fluids are being reused in drilling.

“This is what happens when technology outpaces regulations,” says Ingraffea. “It’s the same process with a different name.”

Add recycling to the long list of things EPA needs to look at in their new hydro-fracking study.

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