Critics Blast Plan to Ship Fracking Wastewater on Delaware River

With 15 million people depending on river for drinking water, 'green groups' warn of disastrous impact of spills, accidents

barge fracking
The U.S. Coast Guard’s proposal to allow shale-gas wastewater to be shipped on barges along the nation’s waterways, including the Delaware River, came under fire yesterday from a number of prominent environmental organizations.

The draft proposal, unveiled late last month by the Coast Guard, is the latest measure related to using hydraulic fracturing to recover natural gas from huge deposits in the Marcellus Shale formations in parts of the Northeast to draw criticism from environmentalists.

The technology, dubbed “fracking,” is opposed by environmentalists because they fear it could end up polluting drinking water tapped from the Delaware River, the source for 15 million residents in the region. The drilling operation injects huge amounts of water, along with smaller traces of toxic chemicals, into the shale formations to recover the natural gas trapped there.

While no drilling for natural gas has occurred in New Jersey, the issue is still controversial here. Last year, the state Legislature passed a law banning the treatment of fracking waste, which sometimes contains radioactive substances, but Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the bill.

There have been proposals to ban fracking in the region, but none have been approved, largely because the amount of natural gas discovered in the Marcellus Shale has triggered an economic boom in Pennsylvania and other states and has lowered energy bills for residents and businesses around the region.

New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan envisions natural gas playing a key role in reducing electricity costs for consumers, while it also promotes the expansion of gas pipelines throughout the state, even through environmentally sensitive areas.

“Shipping waste throughout the country by barge is playing Russian Roulette with our waterways,’’ said Jeff Tittel, lobbyist for the New Jersey Sierra Club. “You don’t know when there will be a spill or an accident that could lead to catastrophic impacts to our waters.’’

With the ban on disposing fracking waste overturned by the governor, Tittel and others fear the industry could ship waste to New Jersey facilities for disposal.

Dave Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, agreed. “The Coast Guard is not living up to its name—guarding the coast,’’ Pringle said.

The Coast Guard did not return a call for comment on the proposal.

To Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, the shipping proposal involving fracking waste underscores a key problem with the sector.

“The fracking industry does not have an environmentally safe solution to deal with fracking waste,’’ he said. “It’s the Achilles heel of the industry.’’

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, echoed that argument.

“Gas drillers are in a jam because they have too much waste and not enough ways to move it,’’ she said. “Now they want to barge it up and down our rivers, too, despite the dangers to our drinking water and communities. This must be stopped.’’

According to researchers at Duke and Kent State, the wastewater produced by fracking in Pennsylvania alone amounted to 1.2 billion gallons in 2011.