Committee Says NJ Won’t Treat Wastewater from Hydraulic Fracturing

Bill not likely to be approved in lame duck session but still sends message, backers and foes say

In a move that may be more symbolic than substantive, a legislative committee yesterday voted to prohibit New Jersey’s sewage treatment plants from accepting wastewater from operations drilling for natural gas in Marcellus Shale deposits in Pennsylvania and other states.

The legislation, narrowly approved by the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, is unlikely to win final legislative approval in the lame duck session, but both proponents of the bill and foes agreed it would send a signal that New Jersey steadfastly opposes the controversial method of extracting natural gas.

The process, dubbed hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting large amounts of water and sand into large deposits of natural gas formed in the Marcellus Shale. The process, called fracking by foes, also injects a range of chemicals in the process, a fact opponents say threatens the drinking water supplies of 15 million people relying on water from the Delaware River.

The activity has become a huge issue in New Jersey and surrounding states because of fears it will contaminate drinking water supplies, while proponents say curtailing those drilling operations will cost consumers and businesses an opportunity to lower sky-high electric bills by tapping a cheap and cleaner source of producing power.

“Politics is perception,” said Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey. “It’s sending a message that New Jersey is saying no to fracking in general.”

He and other industry lobbyists urged the committee to hold off action on the bill, saying there is no information that operations from the drilling is contaminating drinking water supplies, a view disputed by environmentalists and some members of the committee.

“Until such time as we are reasonably convinced of the science of the effluent [wastewater from fracking operations] is safe, we should put a brake on it,” said Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), the chairman of the committee.

Others suggested the bill could help deter the development of more wells to extract natural gas in the Delaware River Basin, which supplies drinking water to residents in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.

“We need to starve the beast rather than feed it,”‘ said David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, which supported the bill. He argued one way to discourage fracking in the region was to make it more difficult to dispose of the millions of gallons of wastewater the process generates.

The action on the bill comes in the wake of the Delaware River Basin Commission postponing a new rule that would lift a moratorium on new drilling operations, a move many environmental groups have opposed,

The committee amended the bill to deal with concerns it would violate federal commerce provisions by eliminating a provision dealing with the transportation of wastewater. Instead, it merely prohibits wastewater treatment facilities from treating those wastes, a process environmentalists argued most treatment plants are not equipped to do.

But Sarah Bluhm , a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, argued the prohibition would prevent firms in the state from capitalizing on efforts to deal with the boom in natural gas deposits in neighboring states.