The U.S. Coast Guard is seeking public comments on a proposal that would allow barges to transport shale gas wastewater, a drilling byproduct that can include chemicals, radioactive material and heavy metals.
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 transport 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.
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