Environmentalists Oppose Shipping Fracking Waste By Barge

As more oil and gas drilling takes place in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, there's more liquid waste that needs disposing. A proposal to carry that waste to disposal sites using river barges is getting attention. But some environmentalists say it's just too risky a way to transport the waste.

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States like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio have seen an increase in oil and gas drilling recently. And this process, hydraulic fracturing or fracking, has created a lot of something else: liquid waste. Now, one disposal company has come up with a controversial plan for transporting that waste, taking it off trucks and putting it, instead, on barges.

That proposal is triggering what has become yet another safety debate between the drilling industry and some environmentalists.

From Athens Ohio, Fred Kight has the story.

FRED KIGHT, BYLINE: A cold wind blows across the driveway as a tanker truck rumbles into GreenHunter Water LLC in New Matamoras, Ohio, before coming to a stop.

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KIGHT: Trucks like this one may have been on the road for as long as five hours carrying waste from one of many new oil and gas wells being drilled around here.

But John Jack wants to change that. His plan would replace the trucks with river barges.

JOHN JACK: It'll eliminate the need for all these trucks.

KIGHT: Jack is with GreenHunter, a waste disposal company.

JACK: That's been an area of contention within the state and people, about so many trucks. And that's our motivation.

KIGHT: Jack says using barges and fewer trucks will be safer in the long run. And he argues it will not only reduce wear and tear on roads but save on fuel cost. But some environmentalists say the risk is not worth the savings. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources says the New Matamoras facility is being regulated as temporary storage.

At this 10 acre facility there are three, blue, above ground storage tanks that can hold up to 70,000 barrels of waste.

We're downriver from areas of Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, where producers are bringing in many new wells using the drilling technique called fracking. That process produces millions of gallons of waste and it's GreenHunter's job to manage those chemicals, pumping them deep into the ground at authorized sites.

Shipping this kind of material on a U.S. river has never been done before and the Coast Guard has to approve the plan. A Coast Guard official says preliminary studies show the well waste is much saltier than sea water and may contain particles of radon-like radiation.

But spokesman Carlos Diaz says they've not yet made a final determination.

CARLOS DIAZ: It's a process that is not just for the Coast Guard. We're working with other federal agencies to make sure that we have the right expertise and the right folks there looking at this material, and make sure that we're balancing the needs of commerce and we're balancing the needs of the environment, and to make sure that transportation of this material is safe.

KIGHT: GreenHunter official Gary Evans says an OK from the Coast Guard is a no-brainer. He maintains the liquid waste is really no different than a lot of other cargo already being shipped on the river.

GARY EVANS: I don't think they have a choice. I mean we have a legal right to move water down waterways.

KIGHT: Environmentalist Elisa Young says a barge accident would be much worse than an accident on land. A barge spill could dump more than four million gallons of waste into a primary drinking water source. And she wants the Coast Guard to stop this plan.

ELISA YOUNG ENVIRONMENTALIST: I've lived on the river long enough - my family's been there for seven generations - to know that boats and barges sink. It's not a matter of if they will sink. It's a matter of when and how often.

KIGHT: While shale gas production is driving down the cost of natural gas and putting the U.S. on the path to energy independence, waste disposal remains a significant issue. In addition to the ongoing argument about where to put it, this new dispute highlights the debate over how best to transport it.

For NPR News, I'm Fred Kight.

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