State Panel Approves Water Discharge, Protection Rules

Potter County Today

One aspect of water quality regulations that were approved by the state’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission on Thursday could affect the location of natural gas drilling in many areas of Potter County. Under the new rules, drillers would have to leave a forested buffer of at least 150 between a well site and any designated high-quality and exceptional value stream.

Supporters of the package of regulations are hailing the new standards as necessary to protect Pennsylvania’s streams and drinking water supplies against total dissolved solids (TDS) and other pollution from Marcellus Shale drilling wells. The new TDS rules will ensure that rivers and streams in Pennsylvania do not exceed the safe drinking water standard of 500 milligrams per liter. The rules also will protect businesses by grandfathering all existing discharges and allowing businesses to use a stream’s ability to absorb those discharges while not exceeding drinking water standards.

The approved regulations now await review from the environmental resources and energy committees in the state house and senate. Supporters expect them to survive that process and become law.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger noted that drilling wastewater contains very high levels of TDS – chlorides and sulfides – that must be removed before discharging into surface waters. High TDS levels have damaged industrial equipment, caused drinking water companies to issue drinking water advisories and even killed fish, he said. Hanger added that some of Pennsylvania’s rivers are near their capacity to absorb and dilute additional levels of TDS.

The proposed regulations will require drillers to treat drilling wastewater to 500 mg/l or to drinking water quality at the discharge pipe if they choose to return drilling wastewater to rivers and streams. Drillers have several options to dispose of wastewater in Pennsylvania, including: reuse or recycling; disposal in deep caverns when permitted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; or full treatment to the 500 mg/l for TDS standard.

The last option will only work if polluted water is properly treated to reduce high TDS levels. Several states, including Texas, Oklahoma, New York, Iowa, Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee, prohibit returning any drilling wastewater to streams.

The panel also approved new regulations to enhance rules governing erosion, sediment control and stormwater to protect streams from the effects of new development, reduce localized flooding during heavy storms, and cut sediment and nutrient pollution. The new rules, which also include an updated permit fee structure, bring Pennsylvania into compliance with federal requirements for:

• Erosion and sedimentation controls and post-construction stormwater runoff;
• Enhancing agricultural stormwater management provisions beyond plowing and tilling to include animal-heavy use areas.

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