A major dispute is brewing over transporting wastewater from shale gas wells by barge in the Ohio River, the source of drinking water for millions of Americans.
On January 26, GreenHunter Water announced that it had been granted approval by the U.S. Coast Guard to haul tens of thousands of barrels from its shipping terminal and 70,000-barrel wastewater storage facility on the Ohio River in New Matamoras, Ohio.
“The U.S. Coast Guard approval is a significant ‘win’ for both GreenHunter Resources and our valued clients,” Kirk Trosclair, Chief Operating Officer at GreenHunter Resources, Inc., said in a statement announcing the Coast Guard’s approval. “Our ability to transport disposal volumes via barge will significantly reduce our costs, improve our margins and allow us to pass along savings to our clients.”
Outraged environmental advocates immediately objected to the news.
“Despite the thousands of comments from residents along the Ohio River opposing the risk of allowing toxic, radioactive fracking waste to be barged along the Ohio River, the Coast Guard quietly approved the plan at the end of 2014,” said Food & Water Watch Ohio Organizer Alison Auciello.
“The Coast Guard is risking man-made earthquakes, drinking water contamination, leaks and spills. This approval compromises not only the health and safety of the millions who get their drinking water from the Ohio River but will increase the amount of toxic fracking waste that will be injected underground in Southeast Ohio.”
But the company’s announcement was in fact made before the Coast Guard completed its review of the hazards of hauling shale gas wastewater via the nation’s waterways – a process so controversial given the difficulty of controlling mid-river spills and the unique challenges of handling the radioactivity in Marcellus shale brine that proposed Coast Guard rules have drawn almost 70,000 public comments.
GreenHunter’s move drew a sharp rebuke from Coast Guard officials.
“The Coast Guard has not taken final agency action on GreenHunter’s 2012 request to transport shale gas extraction wastewater and has not classified this cargo for shipment,” the Coast Guard said in a statement responding to the announcement. “We are committed to ensuring proper research with regards to shale gas extraction wastewater maritime transportation before approving any request to transport shale gas extraction wastewater.”
So how can the company move forward with plans to ship wastewater in the Ohio River? The answer may come down to whether the waste the company hauls is classified as “shale gas extraction waste” or “oilfield waste.”
GreenHunter officials now say they consider their wastewater “oilfield waste.”
“We don’t even know what the hell shale gas extraction waste is,” Kirk Trosclair, the company’s chief operating officer, told Environment & Energy Publishing last week. “What we’re trying to transport is oil field waste and residual waste, which is basically brine, saltwater.”
The company told the Ohio Beacon it had received a letter on October 2 from the Coast Guard stating it could ship “oilfield waste.”
Citing that authority, company officials said they intend to move forward with shipments.
“GreenHunter Water will continue to transport ‘oilfield waste’ until such time as the Coast Guard ultimately decides on the proper definition of ‘shale gas extraction waste water’ and the rules under which such waste water can be transported. Once these rules are finalized, GreenHunter will comply with these rules and regulations,” Mr. Trosclair told another local newspaper, the Wheeling News Register, last week.
But Coast Guard officials have warned that shipments plans may be premature. Federal regulations will require the company test fluids for radioactivity first.
“The Marcellus shale is known to have elevated levels of naturally occurring radioactive materials, particularly radium,” Cynthia Znati, lead chemical engineer for the Coast Guard’s hazardous materials division, told the Wheeling News Register. “From our perspective, that is the main hazard.”
Mr. Trosclair did not respond to requests for comment from DeSmog.
It seems clear that the company intends to handle wastewater from the Marcellus shale industry. According to its Investor Relations page, GreenHunter Water offers wastewater disposal services for the shale gas industry, specifically catering to Marcellus shale drillers.
“GreenHunter Water is focused on water resource management in the oil and natural gas sector providing Oilfield Water Management Solutions™ to the unconventional shale oil and natural gas plays,” the site reads. “Our operations in the Eagle Ford and Marcellus shale plays are positioned to meet the unique demands of water management needs of producers.”
The company’s 2012 application to haul wastewater has been intensely debated in recent years.
In April 2013, the Coast Guard quietly sent draft regulations for hauling shale waste to the White House Office of Management and Budget, following GreenHunter’s request.
But when people living in the region caught wind of the plans, they flooded the Coast Guard with tens of thousands of public comments.
Organizers in Ohio objected to the plans not only based on the risks of spills and the danger that radioactive materials could collect in the barges themselves, but also because they feared that barging would open up the floodgates for disposing even more shale gas wastewater in Ohio, where disposal wells have caused earthquakes according to the USGS.
“It would increase the pace at which Ohio becomes the fracking waste dumping ground for other areas of the country – not real appealing,” Melissa English, the director of development at Ohio Citizen Action, told Reuters at the time.
Today, the collapse of crude oil prices has left the barging industry under financial pressure, as many companies invested heavily in equipment to haul oil via river. Barge shipments of crude oil rose from from roughly 4 million barrels in 2008 to 46.7 million barrels in 2013, a more than ten-fold increase over the span of five years.
But that boom may be dissipating, creating worries of a market bust. “US oil production has been the biggest driver of the US barge transportation market since the introduction of fracking saw domestic oil production boom since 2004 but it is also set to see the market decline as more efficient pipelines come online for oil transportation and production slows in response to the global oil crisis,” Companies and Markets.com reported on February 9.
In that environment, the pressure for drillers to cut costs and for barging companies to find new clients is intense. “GreenHunter Resources estimates that each 10,000 barrels of disposal volumes transported via barge will reduce trucking hours by approximately 600 hours,” the company told investors in a January 26 statement. “The reduced transport charges are anticipated to lead to significant margin improvement for GreenHunter Resources as well as potential cost savings for GreenHunter’s valued clients.”
But as DeSmog has previously reported, environmentalists worry not only about the difficulties of controlling spills of shale wastewater, which unlike oil spills cannot be controlled by booms, but also the risk of illegal dumping. The costs of legal disposal outstrip can outstrip the potential fines for illegal dumping, and wastewater haulers have been caught simply opening the spigots to dispose of the waste.
The company’s overall strategy, which involves the completion of the Mills Hunter Facility in Portland, Ohio before the end of the year, could also sharply increase the amount of wastewater shipped to Ohio.
“Based on those numbers, Mills Hunter would handle and inject about 7.8 million barrels of waste per year, making it the No. 1 injection site in Ohio by far,” the Ohio Beacon reported. “That total would represent about 50 percent of the injection volume handled annually at Ohio’s 201 injection wells.”
These plans may run into significant opposition, as some environmental groups have already launched letters objecting to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard.
On Wednesday, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit authorization for the offloading facility, but warned against using the terminal for shale gas wastewater from horizontal wells.
“The validated Department of the Army permit prohibits the offloading of SGEWW generated from horizontal fracking operations,” wrote the Corps, using SGEWW as an abbreviation for shale gas extraction wastewater, and emphasizing their warning by printing the statement in bold. “If the permittee proposes to offload SGEWW in the future, they would be required to obtain prior authorization from the Corps.”
Environmental groups say they are concerned that the statements by GreenHunter officials may indicate that the company could already be shipping shale wastewater despite their lack of a shale-specific permit.
In objections sent to the Coast Guard on Wednesday, representatives from roughly three dozen regional and national environmental groups requested the federal government launch an investigation.
“Regulation does not turn on semantic differences, but instead, on physical evidence,” the groups wrote as they requested the Coast Guard issue a cease and desist letter and launch a criminal investigation into the contents of the materials hauled by the company.
“Leakage of GreenHunter cargoes into river waters in the present circumstances, where the company insists it need not test or characterize its ‘oilfield wastes’ could be catastrophic,” the group wrote, “and at a minimum, could pose continuing environmental and health hazards which would stress public water supplies and various forms of wildlife.”
Photo Credit: Picture of a large barge moving, via Shutterstock.