Environmentalists, Lawmakers Trying New Tack to Keep Out Fracking Waste

Tom Johnson | September 22, 2015 | Energy & Environment
A new bill would prevent many of the chemicals in fracking wastewater from being treated in state, rather than outlawing the waste itself

Fracking waste being dumped into holding pool.
Having failed — so far — to ban the disposal of fracking wastewater in New Jersey, the state is looking at dealing with the issue by tightening conditions when the material is disposed here.

A bill, held up for further consideration by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee yesterday, is the latest dispute to emerge over the extraction of abundant new supplies of natural gas in neighboring states and what to do with the waste generated from such drilling.

The process, known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, involves the injection of huge amounts of water and smaller amounts of toxic chemicals and sand to break up the dense shale formations to access the natural gas. The plentiful supplies of gas from the formations have helped lower heating and electricity bills for both residents and businesses.

But environmentalists and others worry that the waste produced by fracking threatens public drinking-water supplies. That led the Legislature on two occasions to pass bills that would ban the disposal of such waste — both vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie. He said the bills were unconstitutional.

Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington), the sponsor of a bill (S-2334) to analyze and regulate the disposal of such waste, is trying a different tack than an outright ban. Her measure would protect the public from many of the chemicals in the waste stream already being disposed of here, she said.

“This is an attempt to deal with it,’’ Allen said by requiring analysis of the waste before being accepted by a disposal facility. “We don’t know all of the things in fracking waste. It’s hard to regulate it when you don’t know what’s in it.’’

Sen. Chris “Kip’’ Bateman (R-Somerset), who sponsored the ban on disposing such waste, disagreed with the strategy suggested by Allen. “I’d like to pursue an override,’’ said Batman, referring to Christie’s latest veto. “We should ban it.’’

[related]Environmentalists shared that sentiment. They argued regulation of the waste could sidetrack efforts to enact such ban while questioning how effective the state’s efforts to oversee such disposal would be.

“How can you trust the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) to write the regulations?’’ asked Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. He noted that the state agency has been slow to write regulations for various new laws while rolling back environmental safeguards in other programs at the same time.

Jim Walsh of Food & Water Watch also said the bill was misguided. “There’s no way to safely regulate this waste,’’ he said. “So why try?’’

However, industry lobbyists said the department already has the authority to regulate the discharge of wastewater.

“No one can discharge without getting a permit,’’ said Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council. “We have in the department [the ability] to do the right thing in most cases.’’

But Tittel noted that there is a loophole in federal law, which exempts fracking from complying with certain environmental regulations. A new state law regulating the disposal of fracking waste could be preempted by the loophole, he said.

In holding the bill, Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee, asked a DEP representative to come back to lawmakers with its recommendations on the bill.