The State Journal
20 November 2008
By Pam Kasey
MORGANTOWN -- A long-term plan for gas well drilling water disposal may be one outcome of this fall's water quality problem on the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania.
Environmental regulators need to anticipate how much brine the coming boom in Marcellus shale gas well drilling will generate and how much of that the rivers can handle, according to one scientist.
The Monongahela River problem first came to the attention of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection officials Oct. 10, explained PADEP Aquatic Biologist Supervisor Rick Spear at a Nov. 14 Morgantown meeting of agency officials, researchers, nonprofit groups and residents from both Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
On Oct. 10, Spear said, Allegheny Energy's Hatfield's Ferry Power Station violated its air emissions permit.
What followed is a study in how everything is connected.
The power station's problem, it turned out, originated in the cooling water it withdrew from the Monongahela River: Unusually high levels of the salts that, with other substances, make up the contaminant "total dissolved solids" (TDS).
TDS is not a human health hazard but, at concentrations above the Pennsylvania water quality standard of 500 milligrams/liter, it can harm industrial equipment and affect the smell and taste of drinking water, officials said.
PADEP asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to increase releases from dams upriver in West Virginia to dilute the contaminants.
And the Corps called the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, which manages the facilities at Tygart Lake State Park.
Tygart Lake, it turns out, is on drought watch. Releasing much more from the dam would leave the boat ramps high and dry.
"That's going to affect our fishing," said DNR Fisheries Biologist Frank Jernejcic at the meeting. "This potentially has a lot of ramifications, not only for water quality but for access areas and other things."
PADEP stepped up its water quality sampling and found concentrations above 900 mg/L below wastewater treatment plants on the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania.
They traced it to gas well drilling brine the plants had accepted but could not, with standard technology, fully treat.
By Oct. 22, PADEP ordered nine wastewater treatment plants on the Monongahela River to curtail gas well drilling brine treatment until further notice.
An outstanding question concerns October data showing TDS levels as high as 500 mg/L as the Monongahela River entered Pennsylvania from West Virginia.
The main problem was not in West Virginia, according to Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University.
PADEP's sampling data show clearly that the TDS numbers spiked at the wastewater treatment plants, Ziemkiewicz said.
Still, some wonder whether the West Virginia TDS numbers are unusually high for this time of year and, if so, whether that's due to low flows or to some new upriver discharge.
Historical data are not immediately available, but Ziemkiewicz said he's very interested in getting them.
The Marcellus shale natural gas boom has only just begun.
PADEP's Spear estimated that there are 50 to 150 Marcellus gas wells in operation in Pennsylvania and said that the number is projected to increase "dramatically."
Just one company operating in West Virginia, Chesapeake Energy Corp., expects to drill 30 to 40 Marcellus wells in 2009, primarily in Wetzel County, according to vice president Scott Rotruck.
Drillers in West Virginia typically inject their brine deep underground or send it out of state.
But this fall's incident made it clear that even out-of-state discharges can have effects in West Virginia.
Ziemkiewicz suggested a near-term management option.
"We'll need to start looking at whether you can manage some of these discharges to the river," he said, "by simply encouraging people to discharge during high flow periods and to stop when river gets low, on a voluntary basis. That's something that could happen right away."
But more importantly, for longer-term planning, Ziemkiewicz is considering a research project that would use historical flow and water quality data to calculate how much brine the rivers can dilute.
Regulators need to think now about how much drilling brine they can expect in the coming years, he said. If they know how much the rivers will be able to handle, they can plan better for volumes above that.
Specialized treatment is one possibility.
Morgantown Utility Board General Manager James Green said MUB has rejected water from gas well drillers.
"They're talking to engineers right now about building a plant that's focused directly on treating this brine," Green said.
At the Nov. 14 meeting, Jernejcic said he joined DNR in the 1970s, "before the fish" -- that is, back when the Monongahela River was almost completely dead because of acid mine drainage. It now supports prized fisheries and continues to improve.
He wants to see planning for gas well drilling brine happen now.
Pam Kasey, North-Central Reporter, The State Journal - (304) 291-8205 - www.statejournal.com