PITTSBURGH - The U.S. Coast Guard is seeking public comments on a proposal that would allow barges to transport shale gas wastewater.
Some states, such as Texas, have large numbers of underground wells where the wastewater can be disposed. But Pennsylvania - where a recent boom in shale gas drilling is producing tens of millions of gallons of wastewater every year - has only a few such disposal wells.
Extracting the gas trapped in shale formations requires pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to break apart rock and free the gas. Some of that water, along with large quantities of existing underground water, returns to the surface, and it can contain high levels of salt, heavy metals and low-level radiation.
Over the last five years, a lot of Pennsylvania shale wastewater has been taken to Ohio by truck or train, and much of it is now being recycled. But the Coast Guard said barge companies are interested in taking wastewater to disposal sites in Texas and Louisiana, too.
Patrick Creighton, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said the industry group thinks wastewater transported via barge can be done in a safe way. He noted that products including gasoline and chemicals are already transported by barge in large quantities.
"The Coast Guard is going to move forward in a way that's responsible," Creighton said.
But Erika Staaf of the group 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 24 days left.
According to the Port of Pittsburgh, one barge has the capacity of about 70 large tractor-trailer trucks.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesman John Poister noted that the agency doesn't regulate what is carried in barges on waterways.
Its priority "would be to ensure the safety of drinking water supplies and protection of water quality in rivers and streams," Poister wrote in an email.
James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, said the group was glad that the Coast Guard has released the proposal.
"We hope that this can be resolved without too much more delay," he said. Though the commission doesn't have a position on wastewater transport, "generally speaking, we support the commercial use and development" of the river system, McCarville said.