The U.S. Coast Guard is moving forward with a proposal that would allow fracking wastewater to be transported by barge on inland waterways, opening a draft policy to public comment that will end Nov. 29.
Transport companies, oil and gas producers and others working in Ohio and Pennsylvania have expressed a desire to use waterways such as the Ohio River to move wastewater by barge for recycling or disposal.
For several years, the federal government, under its powers to regulate interstate commerce, has mulled authorizing the proposal. For decades, merchants have used rivers, especially the Ohio, to ship commodities of all kinds, including steel, grain, minerals, coal, oil, gas and chemicals.
With 98 percent of all the brine generated or entering Ohio disposed of in injection wells, and few options in Pennsylvania to do the same, proponents of the proposal say it will help facilitate movement of the waste to other states and reduce the truck traffic on roads in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Patrick Creighton, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said the industry group thinks wastewater transport via barge can be done in a safe way.
“The Coast Guard is going to move forward in a way that’s responsible,” Creighton said.
James Guttman, CEO of the Guttman Group near Pittsburgh, which sources and delivers oil and gasoline to regional stations and transports the commodities by barge on the Ohio River, said his company is planning to provide comment in support of the draft policy.
“These are tank barges. They’re not open-hopper barges with coal on them; they’re completely enclosed,” he said. “After they’re built, they’re inspected by the Coast Guard, the people that transfer goods to them are licensed by the Coast Guard and the people that push the barges by boat are licensed. They’re scrutinized every step of the way by the right people.”
The Ohio Oil and Gas Association told The Vindicator in May that it supports the proposal as well.
Although it did not cite environmental hazards in its proposal, the Coast Guard did recommend a number of safeguards for workers coming in close contact with the waste, which contains light radioactive and toxic metals from its contact with underground rocks during drilling.
Erika Staaf of PennEnvironment said barge transport is no improvement on current methods.
“Transporting drilling waste by truck leads to increased air pollution, risks accidents and spills, puts undue pressure on local roads and infrastructure; transporting this waste by barge in our nation’s rivers is unnecessarily risky,” she wrote in an email.
Staaf faulted the Coast Guard proposal for not specifically mentioning environmental safeguards, since any spill on rivers such as the Ohio or Monongahela would have major cleanup costs. She also said the public should be given more time to comment, beyond the time left.
A standard barge tow running down the Ohio River averages 15 barges tied together. They carry the cargo equivalent of 1,200 tractor-trailers, according to the Columbiana County Port Authority.
Approval of the proposal could come sometime after the public commenting period concludes.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.