The state is moving to ban wastewater treatment plants in New Jersey from accepting waste from natural gas drilling operations, a move critics fear could harm drinking water supplies.
Legislation () unanimously cleared the Senate Environment and Energy Committee prohibiting the practice Thursday. It is the latest legislative initiative to try to limit hydraulic fracturing, a process in which millions of gallons of water are injected into wells to extract natural gas from shale formations in Pennsylvania and neighboring states.
The practice, dubbed "fracking" by opponents, involves the injection of huge quantities of water, as well as some smaller quantities of chemicals, into shale formations where large deposits of natural gas have been found. It has fueled a boom in domestic gas supplies, which have lowered electricity prices for consumers and businesses.
None of the drilling has occurred in New Jersey, but that has hardly lessened opposition to the practice. Foes fear the drilling operations may threaten the drinking water supplies of 15 million people in the Delaware River Basin, including the more than 1 million in New Jersey who rely on the river for their potable water supplies.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Bergen), addresses a new concern: fears that wastewater from fracking operations will be accepted by New Jersey plants that treat wastewater. Whether that practice is already occurring was a major point of dispute during the committee hearing.
Fracking opponents argued that the DuPont wastewater facility in South Jersey already has accepted wastewater mingled with other wastes, a claim they said was backed up by information on a website of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
"It absolutely went to DuPont," said Tracy Carlucci, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper, an environmental organization.
Jim Benton, executive director of the New Jersey Petroleum Council, and John Hazen, of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, disputed that contention.
Hazen noted that both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state DEP sent out letters last year to all of New Jersey's wastewater treatment facilities, requiring them to notify the agencies of any request to treat fracking waste from other states.
"To my knowledge, we haven't received any inquiries as of this time," Hazen told the committee.
Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) questioned how the state would not know information an environmental organization gleaned from another environmental agency's website. "Clearly, this is problematic," Beck said.
Benton argued the existing regulatory structure is in place to treat wastewater from fracking operations. "We believe a ban is not the solution we would advocate," he told the committee.
But proponents of the bill repeatedly noted that wastewater from fracking is specifically exempted from federal regulations that deal with the handling of hazardous wastes.
Michael Pisauro, an attorney representing the New Jersey Environmental Lobby, noted that the EPA's own website clearly states that there is no comprehensive national standard at this time for disposal of drilling wastes from natural gas wells.
For the most part, foes of fracking noted the state's wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove all of the contaminants from drilling operations, particularly naturally occurring radioactive elements, an issue emphasized by the committee's chairman, Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex).
Others cited more general concerns. "Does New Jersey really need to import more pollution in from other states," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "We have enough pollution in New Jersey's streams and rivers already."
A similar bill was approved by various committees in the previous legislative session but never won final approval.