Enviros seek 'hazardous' classification for fracking waste

Oct 6, 2011

The fluid that comes back up from a hydrofracking well is known as flowback. It's a mix of water (either fresh or recycled) that was pumped into the well, chemicals used to free up natural gas, and underground materials that came up along with the gas.

While the flowback from two wells is never the same, the wastewater often contains benzene, formaldehyde, naturally-occurring radioactive materials, and salt brine.  And now, New York environmental groups are pressing the state to have the flowback declared "hazardous waste" - before drilling moves forward.

So far, New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) treats flowback as industrial waste, for the purposes of transporting it, storing it, and treating it.

But environmental groups want to go further. Nadia Steinzor, with Earthworks, says the waste should be labeled "hazardous."

"And as long as it doesn't, that's a glaring loophole that is going to cause a lot of potential problems for communities and air and water quality," she says.

Unanswered questions

Provisions for fracking flowback are included in the proposed hydrofracking regulations that were released last week by the DEC.

David Gahl, deputy director for Environmental Advocates of New York, criticizes those regulations, saying the state released them before completing the environmental review process.

"They basically are on track to green-light fracking in New York State in the spring of 2012, and a lot of groups like ours have some key questions that haven't been answered yet," says Gahl.

The proposed regulations and the DEC's draft environmental impact statement will be a focus of four upcoming public hearings (dates here) on fracking. Environmental groups are also calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration to extend the public comment period.

Under the proposed regulations, companies would have to submit a plan for wastewater disposal with their drilling application. If given the hazardous waste label, a whole set of restrictions on storage, use, transport and disposal imposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency would have to be followed. If the wastewater continues to be labeled industrial waste, it can go to municipal treatment plants set up to handle this kind of waste.

According to a May report [PDF] by the New York Water Environment Association, a trade group of water quality managers, New York state's "existing treatment capacity may be insufficient" for at least the next several years.

Treatment plants dedicated to hydrofracking waste would likely need to be built, says Tom Johnson, a hydrogeologist in New York.

"There are a couple of plants that can handle the waste if it's not too great of a volume or too high of a concentration," says Johnson. "In general I think wastewater treatment is something that commercial companies are going to take care of."