CINCINNATI -- Southwest Ohio may be hundreds of miles away from hydraulic fracturing activity, but the chemical-and-sand-infused byproduct of the shale gas drilling technique could soon be shipped down local waterways.
The U.S. Coast Guard is now mining through more than 1,000 public comments , as the agency decides whether to allow oil and gas companies to ship fracking wastewater on barges down the Ohio River and other rivers under its jurisdiction.
The Ohio River, 981 miles long and a drinking water supplier for more than five million people, represents the latest battleground in a national environmental debate over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The Coast Guard's 25-page policy letter , made public in October, is a response to the oil and gas industry’s call for new ways to transport and dump its fracking waste.
Fracking is a process where thousands of gallons of sand, water and chemicals are blasted deep into the earth to break apart underground shale and free natural gas for collection. Some of that water returns to the surface, along with large amounts of existing underground water. The byproduct can include salt, radioactive material, diluted drilling chemicals and heavy metals.
Experts say states like Ohio and Texas have hundreds of underground wastewater disposal wells. Pennsylvania—home to one of the richest natural gas deposits in the world—has only a few, which means the waste has to be shipped elsewhere.
The Coast Guard said in its policy letter that there is a commercial interest in shipping the shale gas waste from northern Appalachia via inland waterways to disposal sites in Texas, Louisiana and Ohio. Experts say the Cincinnati Arch is a compelling place to bring the fracking waste, as the type of sandstone makes it easy to drill new injection wells for wastewater storage.
As it stands now, the wastewater must either be stored at the drilling site or transported by rail or truck to storage and reprocessing centers across the country.
Industry representatives say using barges makes more sense. They say it would be more efficient for companies to ship their drilling waste since it would take about 100 trucks to transport the same amount of wastewater that can fit on one barge.
They also say it would create jobs and reduce the risk of wastewater spills.
“If you have one boat or 100 trucks, what are the odds that one boat would have an accident versus those 100 trucks?” said Mike Chadsey, spokesperson for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.
Environmentalists, emergency response experts and those who monitor the Ohio River are worried that the impact of one major barge accident involving the drilling flowback could far exceed the damage caused from truck and railway spills.
“If a truck accident occurs, several thousand gallons [of wastewater] might be spilled at an intersection or might burn up in a fire on the interstate. If a barge containing four million gallons is in an accident and begins to leak, it leaks into the source of the drinking water for the communities that are downstream of the accident site,” said James O’Reilly, a University of Cincinnati public health professor and emergency response expert.
Jerry Schulte, manager of source water protection and emergency response for the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, shared the same fear in a public comment to the Coast Guard.
“Shale gas extraction waste water can pose an immediate threat to drinking water utilities if released to the river directly from a loaded barge,” he wrote in the letter.
What's In The Wastewater?
Barge owners, according to the policy letter, would be required to analyze the material being shipped and prepare a report before material could be sent down the river.
O’Reilly, Schulte and others who wrote to the Coast Guard are concerned that a company may not always have to disclose all of the chemicals or concentrations in the wastewater to first responders and water regulators who could be involved.
That means the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, which uses special equipment to screen for chemicals in the river daily and notifies water providers if there is a problem, may not know what specific fracking chemicals were coming down the river or be able to detect them inside.
“With this extensive library, we are able to identify a lot of chemicals that we don’t know...but the bulk of the material in the frack water we would not be able to identify," said Schulte. "Given the fact that my responsibility is to detect chemicals in the water to protect drinking water and utilities, yes it is a concern. If I don't know what the chemicals are, I can't relay that information to the utilities."
That’s why O’Reilly is asking the Coast Guard to require shippers and the oil and gas companies to tell emergency responders exactly what chemicals are being shipped so they can confidently respond.
“They have a standard method of dealing with gasoline spills. They have a standard method of dealing with other kinds of chemical spills because
you know exactly what’s in the barge and you know exactly how to respond,” said O’Reilly. “This is very different. It’s like mixing up a lot of tanks from the fracking well sites and mixing them together and putting them into the barge.”
O’Reilly also wants the Coast Guard to add an environmental impact statement to its final proposal and ensure that the oil and gas companies would be responsible for damages caused by a spill, as the clean up can sometimes cost millions of dollars.
“It’s salt, it’s brine, it’s bromides, it’s other chemicals, it’s rock drilling waste, and once it goes into the water you have to have a very sophisticated clean up that involves taking out the bottom of the river and dredging it up,” he said.
Schulte said the material could be near impossible to remove and would compromise the use of the Ohio River for drinking water.
Major Barge Accidents Rare, Spills More Common
Accidents involving barges and tugboats, which push the barges down the river, are relatively common. But major incidents are rare.
“These things are moving at a snail's pace on a river. It’s not as if they are in the middle of the ocean, and they have to go from here to Japan,” said Chadsey, the Ohio Oil and Gas Association spokesperson. “Yes, we need to protect these things. Yes, they need to be more regulated. Yes, anything is possible, but look at the practicality…Let’s not overreact here.”
In 2013, the Coast Guard opened 22 investigations involving tugboats and barges between the 95-mile stretch of the Ohio River from the Meldahl Lock and Dam , near Felicity, Ohio, to the Markland Lock and Dam , near Warsaw, Ky.
The investigations involved things like engine failure, loss of steering, equipment failure, personal injuries and grounding. One of the 22 reports included an allision and none involved a collision, according to a spokesperson at the local Coast Guard post.
Experts say barges are "double hulled," which means they have an extra layer of protection that's holding the product inside the vessel to reduce the risk of it leaking if an accident did occur.
Peter Tennant, executive director at the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, said hundreds of barges are pushed up and down the Ohio River each day without problem.
“I want to emphasize that this is a fire extinguisher situation. It’s not like every day that something could happen. But when the fire does happen, you want the fire extinguisher to be operational,” said Tennant. “When we’ve had spills, chemical releases, one of the important things that a drinking water utility wants is to know is the material.”
While large spills are rare, Schulte said he receives reports of small spills almost every day--most of which have no impact to the drinking water quality.
In 2012, 368 spills impacting land, water or air were reported in the Southwest Ohio region, according data provided by Schulte. Two hundred and three of those spills were reported on the Ohio River and tributaries.
"I have reports from the National Response Center that have been turned in for a quarter of a teaspoon that was spilled, three drops, an oil sheen created because the rain washed grease from footprints on the deck of the barge into river," said Schulte.
Most recently, Schulte and others responded to a chemical leak from West Virginia that made its way into the Ohio River earlier this month.
The Coast Guard says it has not set a timeline for deciding on if it will implement the barge wastewater plans.
"We need to review the comments and then see what comments are good and which comments we can add or suggest to the policy," said Carlos Diaz, spokesperson for the Coast Guard.
The public had 30 days to make comments about the policy letter. The public comment period is now closed.
After they review the public comments, Diaz said officials will draft a formal proposal if they decide to move forward.
O'Reilly, an author of textbooks on emergency response, said courts have historically rejected rule-writing exercises that don't include environmental impact statements.
"The chances of this October proposed policy letter winning in federal court are less than 10 percent," said O'Reilly. "I predict the [Coast Guard] will issue a new rulemaking proposal and do an environmental impact statement later in 2014."
Diaz said it is too early to tell if an environmental impact statement will be added to the plan.