Pennsylvania drilling wastes might overwhelm Ohio injection wells

By Bob Downing
Beacon Journal staff writer

The volume of drilling wastes from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale is growing and threatening to overwhelm existing waste-handling infrastructure in Ohio and other states, according to a study released Tuesday.

Ohio’s 179 injection wells for disposing of briny waste might not be sufficient for the Pennsylvania waste, plus wastes from Ohio’s developing Utica shale, said Brian Lutz, assistant professor of biogeochemistry at Kent State University, who led the analysis while he was a postdoctoral research associate at Duke University.

The volume of Marcellus wastewater has grown 570 percent from 2004 to 2011 due to increased shale gas production in Pennsylvania, Lutz said.

“The overall volume of water that now has to be transported and treated is immense,” he said. “It threatens to overwhelm the region’s wastewater-disposal infrastructure capacity.”

The wastes in play include flow-back water, produced immediately after hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, plus brine, or production water, generated after the fracking is done and the well goes into production. Such wastes generally are similar with a few key differences.

The liquid wastes can contain significant amounts of salts and total dissolved solids; low-level radiation and toxic heavy metals picked up from underground rocks; oils and grease; leftover toxic chemicals used in fracking; and certain volatile organic compounds, including benzene.

Pennsylvania has about 6,400 Marcellus shale wells that have been drilled and another 3,500 that have been permitted. In comparison, Ohio has about 500 wells permitted in the Utica shale, of which 200 have been drilled.

Lutz said Pennsylvania generated about 20 million barrels (each holding 42 gallons) of wastewater in 2011. About 7 million barrels were shipped to Ohio injection wells.

Ohio is projecting that its injection wells handled nearly 14 million barrels in 2012, up from 12.8 million barrels in 2011. (Final figures have not been compiled). More than half of that volume came from Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Pennsylvania has five permitted and operating injection wells. Some of the state’s wastewater is recycled; some goes to special plants for treatment.

Ohio cannot ban such wastes because they are interstate commerce protected under the U.S. Constitution. It is unknown exactly how much injection capacity the state can handle.

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