11:42am

Wed November 30, 2011
Energy

Treating fracking fluid could be big business for Niagara Falls

If the controversial natural gas drilling technique known as fracking is given the green light in New York next year, toxic waste fluid from the wells is likely to end up in Niagara Falls.

The natural gas industry is already eyeing the Niagara Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) to accept fracking waste by truck, rail or pipeline.

Those visions are receiving encouragement from some Niagara Falls officials, who see the proposal as a business opportunity. 

To properly treat fracking fluid, special facilities and methods are required. Niagara Falls WWTP was designed to offer these services, thanks to the region's industrial background.

Yet with a ban on accepting fracking waste underway until regulations are officially set by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the treatment plant is an untapped source of revenue, says Paul Drof with the Niagara Falls Water Board.

"It's our fiduciary responsibility to look at all opportunities available to us to help our ratepayers and use our facilities. And not looking at this, we'd be remiss in our obligation to those ratepayers. The board will look at any opportunity and will then weigh the pros and cons," Drof says.

"Really solves a problem"

But Niagara Falls may have to wait, as proposed regulations from the DEC regarding treatment aren't expected to show up until sometime next year.

Drof maintains that the Niagara Falls Water Board has not decided whether or not to accept fracking waste, but on Tuesday he sat on a panel in Buffalo with natural gas executives from around the state, and spoke favorably of such an arrangement.

On the panel - dubbed "Marcellus Shale: A Growth Story. How Can Your Company Benefit?" - was Brad Gill with the Independent Oil and Gas Drillers of New York (IOGANY). He echoed Drof, saying that the treatment fracking fluid presents a business opportunity for Niagara Falls, which has seen decades of economic decline.

"It solves a problem industry has in western New York with disposal options and water treatment. Our neighboring states, like Ohio, have numerous disposal options. That's one competitive disadvantage that New York has been placed at. So since we have that facility in western New York, it really solves a problem."

Yet for Niagara Falls, known infamously for the Love Canal environmental disaster and coining the term "Superfund," the decision promises to be controversial. Thus, the Niagara Falls Water Board promises to officially hold off considering the matter for the time being.

"We are waiting for the regulations to come down. We have to make a business decision: 'Can we treat it to the degree [the state] is looking for? What is the cost-benefit?' Then we're going to review that, along with public comment and the engineering and the environmental side," Drof says.

"Another level of safety and complexity"

Expensive to operate and maintain, the Niagara Falls WWTP is currently underused. Decades of dwindling population figures and a withering business base have forced the facility to look outside the city for revenue opportunities like accepting fracking fluid.

If the treatment of fracking fluid becomes lucrative for the plant, Niagara Falls citizens could see their water rates drop, Drof claims.

But the prospect of releasing treated fracking fluid into local waterways has predictably aroused the ire of environmentalists and citizens groups. Attempting to allay their concerns, Drof says the WWTP plans to create a unique treatment process will eliminate risk to drinking water and local ecosystems.

"We don't want to do something where we just dilute [the fracking fluid] out so it can't be detected anymore. We want to pre-treat before it's even introduced to the system. So we have another level of safety and complexity before it even sees the [Niagara] River," Drof says. "And our preferable [method] is to reuse that water, so it's sent back to the wellhead so it never does see the Niagara River."

After years of debate, controversy, and uncertainty about the presence of high volume hydraulic fracturing in New York State, panelists at Tuesday's confab seemed to assume the natural gas drilling technique would soon be allowed.

"It's a matter of when, not if, most certainly," says Brad Gill of IOGANY. "And when it does, it will occur in the south central part of state, most likely, and then very gradually spread to other parts of the state."