Pollution

As a well is drilled and becomes fully operational, many of the current regulations currently on the books are in place to protect underground sources of drinking water (USDW). Although clean water is injected into the well, the water removed has been polluted with a mixture of chemicals. This waste then must be properly handled and treated. This hydro-frack fluid, also known as production brine, contains high levels of dissolved solids and corrosive and flammable chemicals and is stored in large vats adjacent to the well. Regulation of its disposal and treatment vary across jurisdictions.

At the federal level

Production brine would fall under the jurisdiction of the EPA through the Safe Water Drinking Act (SWDA) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The SWDA would regulate likely on-site pollutants of local drinking water. However, the "Halliburton Amendment" of SWDA exempts all hydro-fracking activity from the EPA's Underground Injection Control (UIC) program under the Federal Code of Regulations (specifically, 40 CFR 144 - 148). As a result, there is one less component of regulation and inspection needed to ensure adequate protection of human health and the environment. Regulations under the UIC program would include provisions that, amongst other things, require the operator of the well to release the full "nature of the injected fluids" (40 CFR 144.26). Currently, operators provide only an incomplete list of the chemicals mixed into the production brine and are under no obligation to fully disclose due to proprietary claims. This incomplete inventory prevents proper dispossal of the production brine.

The RCRA regulates the movement of all hazardous wastes from "cradle-to-grave," with enforcement through two processes, tracking and permitting. As a generator of toxic waste, drill sites must track and account for the transportation of these wastes produced from hydro-fracking to waste treatment sites. Waste is considered hazardous if it is either ignitable, corrosive, reactive, and/or toxic. However, exemptions also exist under the RCRA; waste produced from the exploration and production of oil and gas are exempt from RCRA regulations (a list of such exempt and non-exempt wastes is available here p. 10 -11). It is unclear which specific processes of hydro-fracking fall under exempt and non-exempt status.

At the state level

State regulation is more proactive, with stipulations on the operational and reporting processes. Well regulation falls under Chapter 25 of the Pennsylvania Code for environmental protection. Production (the amount of gas extracted) of each well for the year must be reported annually to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (§ 78.121). The opening of all new wells or modifications to existing wells must be reported (§ 78.122). Data include:

  • Name, address and telephone number of the permittee.
  • Permit number.
  • Dates of drilling started and completed.
  • Method of drilling.
  • Specifications of wells (size and depth of conductor pipe, surface casing, coal protective casing, production casing and borehole).
  • Type and amount of cement and results of cementing procedures.
  • Elevation and total depth.
  • Drillers log that includes the name and depth of formations from the surface to total depth, depth of oil and gas producing zone, depth of fresh water and brines and source of information.

Subchapter H of the Pennyslvania Code provides provisions for proper construction and inspection of storage wells. Such wells must be lined at least "120% by volume of cement... and at least 500 feet above the casing shoe and at least 200 feet above the upper most perforations" (§ 78.401) to ensure adequate protection from leakage. Additionally, the well must be inspected once per month for well-head pressure and possible damages and corrosion (§ 78.402). Possible leaks must be reported to the DEP within 24 hours.

As part of the disposal process, the treatment of waste must be such that they meet certain concentration levels for disposal into a river basin or watershed (Chapter 25 § 91.15). If these conditions are not met, then the DEP will organize conferences with the operators to create a schedule and plan to address pollution problems (§ 91.11, 91.13) . It is the responsibility of the generator of the waste to ensure all regulations are met and to inform the DEP and downstream communities should the quality of drinking water be compromised as a result of an accident. The generator would then have 15 days from the incident to remedy the situation (§ 91.33).