June 2012, Vol. 24, No.6

The brine stops here

news art jun12

State legislatures put forward bills to ban fracking wastewater treatment  

Though the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are still wrangling over the issue of hydraulic fracturing and what to do with fracking wastewater, states have made their own attempts to respond to these issues.

In 2011, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett convened the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, which issued 96 policy recommendations last July. These included tougher regulations for drilling, such as increasing well setback distance from waterbodies from 100 ft (30.5 m) to 300 ft (91.4 m) and increasing fines for civil violations from $25,000 to $50,000. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced in March its new regulatory standards for transporting and disposing of brine, a byproduct of oil and natural gas hydraulic fracturing. The state created “among one of the nation’s toughest” regulatory frameworks in the area of fracking wastewater disposal, according to DNR.

Now state legislatures also are entering the fray. In 2011 and this year, some have put forward legislation that would restrict or ban the treatment of fracking wastewater within their borders.

Stymied in committee

In November 2011, New Jersey Assemblywoman Connie Wagner and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora sponsored a bill that would have prohibited the treatment, discharge, disposal, or storage in New Jersey of wastewater from fracking. The bill was approved by the Assembly’s Environmental and Solid Waste Committee but did not go before the full legislature for a vote. Later, in February, Maryland State Delegate Shane Robinson sponsored a similar bill that would have banned all shipments of fracking wastewater from other states to be treated in Maryland.

Robinson said that although no hydraulic fracturing takes place in Maryland, there is the potential for natural gas drilling in Garrett and Allegany counties.

“The governor convened a commission to look into safely doing [hydraulic fracturing] here in the region,” Robinson said. “The House Environmental Committee and the governor’s office want to make sure that we do this research in advance. Other states approve of it, like Pennsylvania, but then did their cleanup on the back end.”

Robinson said that in addition to addressing drilling, the committee also wanted to consider what to do with the fracking wastewater. “We don’t have the capability of treating it at our wastewater treatment plants,” he said.

The legislation in February was written in response to a specific incident in 2011 when fracking wastewater was treated in Baltimore County, Robinson said. “The Maryland Department of Environment came in to put a stop to it,” he said.

Robinson said the committee is concerned not only about brine treatment but also about storage. “We are also worried about deep-well injections and earthquakes” after hearing about what happened at the deep-well injecting site in Ohio last year, he said.

Ultimately, the bill banning fracking wastewater treatment in Maryland did not make it out of committee.

“We didn’t want to cover the issues that the commission hadn’t addressed yet,” Robinson said.

Robinson said he thinks not only should the treatment of fracking wastewater be banned in Maryland, hydraulic fracturing also should be banned, “because there are design issues. I think we should wait and see and study the issue more.” Until then, the natural gas supplies can remain in reserve, he said.  

Robinson said another reason why fracking should be banned in the state for now is because “the natural gas market is already flooded. All the economic models we were looking at previously had higher value per Btu,” he said. Since then, the price of natural gas has dropped.

“And I would prefer for us as a state to look at true renewable resources,” Robinson said. “Natural gas has been touted as a bridge to renewable energy, but the bridge seems to go on and on. When does it end?”

— LaShell Stratton-Childers, WE&T 

Learning lessons while serving time

Inmates receive wastewater treatment plant operator training at an Illinois federal prison, learning a new trade and finding new opportunities

Few would think of going to prison as a way to start a new career path, but that is exactly what several inmates have done at the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Ill. The prison’s operator training program has become a way for some of the prisoners to find redemption, said Jimmie Barter, wastewater plant supervisor at the prison and creator of the program.

“It’s really amazing how much they put into this,” Barter said. “A lot of them went into prison because they had no skills but what they had learned on the streets. A lot of them grew up in the inner city and they may have been involved in gangs or drugs. They see this as a way out.”

A tiered training system

Barter said the prison started the operator training program in 1997 and then “went full force with it” in January 1998.

“We’re constantly looking for ways to have [the prisoners] learn a viable trade, and the program makes them less likely to go back to prison,” Barter said.

Minimum-security prisoners, or “campers,” can apply for the program, which is offered with the help of the U.S. Department of Labor. The department gives trainees certificates once they have completed the program.

The students must complete 4000 hours, or 2 years, of the program. It includes hands-on training at the prison’s Class II extended aeration treatment facility during the day and studying operator textbooks in the evenings. Two staff members at the plant function as trainers. Once the students meet the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (Illinois EPA) requirements, they can take the test for their license.

Barter said the number of trainees has expanded over time. Currently, 15 inmates are enrolled in the program. Five more are in the preprogram.

The prison started the preprogram 3 years ago. It lasts for 6 to 8 months and counts toward trainees’ apprenticeship hours. Within the preprogram, inmates learn how to compost kitchen waste. Prior to enrolling in the preprogram, inmates must complete an adult continuing education program, which requires almost 2 hours of classwork daily.

“They learn the basics of wastewater knowledge, the different verbiage, wastewater systems, and they do some math,” Barter said. The students also are required to take midterm and final exams.

Barter said he developed the tiered training system to make sure all the candidates who apply for the wastewater treatment operator program are serious. “Our apprenticeship program is very coveted,” he said. Currently, 30 inmates are on the waiting list.


Far from glamorous, but fulfilling

Barter said in the roughly 14 years the prison has offered its operator training program, it has licensed more than 30 inmates. Many have left the prison and gone on to work at wastewater treatment utilities. (Barter said he does not know what specific utilities former inmates have gone to work in after imprisonment, because by law he is not allowed to have contact with former inmates after they are released.)

“When they leave here with an [Illinois] EPA license [in] hand, a lot of the utilities don’t care that they are convicts,” Barter said.

Barter added that giving “them a license is like giving them a million dollars. This is the first time in their lives they can really feel proud of themselves.” He gave the example of one inmate who wanted to get his operator certification before his mother died of cancer. “He wanted her to be proud of his achievement, and he managed to show her the certificate before she died,” he said.

Barter has worked for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for almost 26 years. “This has been the greatest satisfaction for me, knowing what I’m doing is actually helping people,” he said. “It makes me feel good about coming to work every day, even though this isn’t a very glamorous place, either working in wastewater or the penal system.”

— LaShell Stratton-Childers, WE&T 


Estimating the cost of nutrient criteria in Florida 

Federal report suggests improving cost estimates for curbing nutrient pollution

When it was decided in 2009 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would set numeric nutrient criteria for Florida waters, one of the big questions was how much it would cost the state. EPA estimated an annual price tag of $135 million to $206 million, while other stakeholders projected costs as high as $12 billion. Now, a new report from the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) recommends a more collaborative way of dealing with economic uncertainties and concludes that EPA likely underestimated the potential costs of meeting the new criteria.

For many years, Florida has managed nutrients in its waters with a narrative standard that forbids nutrient concentrations that would upset the natural balance of aquatic plants and animals. When EPA called on all states to establish numeric nutrient criteria by 2003, Florida, like most states, never met the deadline.

In 2009, EPA settled a lawsuit brought by environmental groups that compelled the agency to step in and set the numeric criteria for Florida. “So, Florida has become a national test case for nutrient criteria,” said Leonard Shabman, lead author of the NRC report and vice chair of Resources for the Future (Arlington, Va.), a nonprofit think tank.

When EPA finalized numeric nutrient rules for Florida lakes and streams in 2010, the agency noted that the new standards could require new or tightened point source discharge permits and nutrient controls for nonpoint sources. So, EPA estimated the incremental cost — how much more it would cost the state to comply with the new rules, compared to the old narrative criteria.

Amid a storm of criticism, EPA asked NRC to analyze the validity of the assumptions and methods that the agency used for its economic analysis. “The report found that EPA’s estimate of economic impact was misinterpreted by the media and lower than expected, because EPA calculated the incremental cost, not the total cost, of cutting nutrients,” said Carl Myers, assistant director of government affairs at the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.). The report also notes that EPA’s cost estimate was constrained by time and a limited budget, he said.

NRC discovered that the various cost analyses disagreed because “every cost analysis is subject to unreducible uncertainties,” Shabman said. For example, experts don’t know exactly how natural systems will respond, so they don’t know what kind of technology will be necessary to meet water quality standards. “Especially in the areas of stormwater and agriculture, the cost estimates are highly uncertain because nature is variable and costs are variable,” Shabman said. Also, “we don’t know how the regulatory process is going to work out as we replace a narrative process with a numeric process, and that affects cost,” Shabman said.

“Individuals making estimates of costs have to choose what they’re going to assume in each of these areas of uncertainty,” Shabman said. EPA tended to make assumptions that reduced costs, while opponents tended to make pessimistic assumptions about the uncertainties. Therefore, the NRC report suggests that if stakeholders collaborated on the assumptions behind a cost analysis at the same time they craft numeric limits, they might come up with a better rule that targets the most cost-effective actions to improve water quality, he said.

Meanwhile, EPA has delayed implementation of its numeric criteria in Florida until July 7. The agency currently is reviewing numeric nutrient criteria drafted by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and unanimously approved by the state legislature on Feb. 9. “The signals are that EPA will accept Florida’s criteria, and this is a good outcome, because all along, EPA has wanted all states to draft their own criteria,” Myers said.

Both EPA and DEP use the same numeric limits, said Drew Bartlett, director of DEP’s Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration. But DEP gives precedence to existing site-specific evaluations, such as total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), water-quality-based effluent limitations studies, or restoration goals. “If a TMDL is established, that is still the numeric limit for that waterbody,” Bartlett said.

“Where we couldn’t derive a number for nitrogen and phosphorus based on a cause-and-effect relationship, we coupled the evaluation of the numeric criteria with a biological evaluation for the case of streams and rivers,” Bartlett said. If metrics of the plants and animals show they are in well-balanced condition, then whatever nutrient concentrations are existing at the time will protect the aquatic life of that waterbody, he said.

DEP estimates that its rules will cost $51 million to $150 million per year to implement.

“If Florida has the final say, that is a very good outcome for other states,” said Alex Dunn, executive director of the Association of Clean Water Administrators (Washington, D.C.). Having a state take the lead on nutrients is consistent with the direction EPA wants to go, as set out in a framework issued last year by the agency, she said. 

— Janet Pelley, WE&T 

©2012 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.