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Attempts To Track Gas Drilling Waste Flawed

Natural gas industry's claim it is reducing polluted wastewater discharge is proving difficult to assess because of inconsistent reporting and a data entry error.

The natural gas industry's claim that it is making great strides in reducing how much polluted wastewater it discharges to Pennsylvania rivers is proving difficult to assess because of inconsistent reporting by energy companies -- and at least one big data entry error in the state's system for tracking the contaminated fluids.

Last month, Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection released data that appeared to show that drillers had found a way to recycle nearly 6.9 million barrels of the toxic brine produced by natural gas wells -- fluid that in past years would have been sent to wastewater plants for partial treatment, and then discharged into rivers that also serve as drinking water supplies.

But those figures were revealed Thursday to have been wildly inflated, due to a mistake by Seneca Resources Corp., a subsidiary of Houston-based National Fuel Gas Co. The company said a worker gave some data to the state in the wrong unit of measure, meaning that about 125,000 barrels of recycled wastewater was misreported as more than 5.2 million barrels.

The error left the false impression that, as an industry, gas companies had created about 10.6 million barrels of wastewater in the last six months of 2010, and then recycled at least 65 percent of that total.

"They did put in gallons where they should have put in barrels," Seneca spokeswoman Nancy Taylor explained after the error was reported Thursday by the Philadelphia Inquirer. There are 42 gallons in every barrel. Taylor said the company was working to correct its information.

So how much waste did the industry actually recycle? It may be impossible to say with certainty.

Not counting Seneca's bad numbers -- and assuming that the rest of the state's data is accurate -- drillers reported that they generated about 5.4 million barrels of wastewater in the second half of 2010. Of that, DEP lists about 2.8 million barrels going to treatment plants that discharge into rivers and streams, about 460,000 barrels being sent to underground disposal wells, and about 2 million barrels being recycled or treated at plants with no river discharge.

That would suggest a recycling rate of around 38 percent, a number that stands in stark contrast to the 90 percent recycling rate claimed by some industry representatives. But Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, stood by the 90 percent figure this week after it was questioned by The Associated Press, The New York Times and other news organizations.

"I am definitely holding to the 90 percent," she said, adding that her figure was based on internal industry data. "It is definitely high and going higher."

As for the wastewater management reports filed annually with the state and reported to the public, she and other people in the industry said they aren't fully representative of the industry's practices.

At least one company, Range Resources of Fort Worth, Texas, said it hadn't been reporting much of its recycled wastewater at all, because it believed the DEP's tracking system only covered water that the company sent out for treatment or disposal, not fluids it reused on the spot.

Another company that had boasted of a near 100 percent recycling rate, Cabot Oil & Gas, also Houston-based, told The AP that the figure only included fluids that gush from a well once it is opened for production by a process known as hydraulic fracturing. Company spokesman George Stark said it didn't include different types of wastewater unrelated to fracturing, like groundwater or rainwater contaminated during the drilling process by chemically tainted drilling muds.

DEP officials did not immediately respond to inquiries about the problems with the state's data.

The AP reported in January that previous attempts by the state to track where wastewater was going were also flawed. Some companies reported that wells had generated wastewater, but failed to say where it went. The state was unable to account for the disposal method for nearly 1.3 million barrels of wastewater, or about a fifth of the total reported in the 12 month period that ended June 30. At least some went to a facility that had not received permission from regulators.

Among large gas-producing states, Pennsylvania is the only one that allows substantial amounts of wastewater produced by gas drilling to be discharged into rivers. Other states don't allow the practice because of environmental concerns. The preferred disposal method in most other places is to inject the well water into rock formations far underground, where it can't contaminate surface water.

Liquid that comes out of the wells -- first in a gush, and then gradually for the years and decades it is in operation -- is ultra-salty and contaminated with substances like barium, strontium, radium, and other things that can be damaging to the environment.

Pennsylvania's strategy for protecting the health of its rivers is based partly on knowing which waterways are getting the waste, and how much they are receiving.

Regulators monitor which rivers are being used as discharge points for treated well wastewater, and use reports filed by Seneca and other companies to help decide which waterways should be watched for signs that the rivers aren't assimilating the waste stream. Even if Seneca's data error had gone unnoticed -- unlikely given the size of the blunder -- it probably would not have had an effect on that effort, because it involved waste not sent to treatment plants for river disposal.
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