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Gas Drilling Waste Pollution Permit Under Scrutiny

Bowing to industry pressure, state has bent the rules for wastewater treatment plant
March 16, 2011
Harrisburg, PA —

Environmental groups are challenging a new proposal to allow a gas drilling wastewater treatment plant operated by Shallenberger Construction, Inc. to dump 500,000 gallons of water polluted by toxic chemicals into the Monongahela River each day without adequate protections for drinking water.

The nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice filed comments on behalf of Clean Water Action and 18 other organizations, disclosing that—for the second time in the short history of the treatment plant—the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) has made an exception to the rules for Shallenberger. The comments also highlight a host of other problems with the plant’s permit, which could result in the contamination of the Monongahela River, a drinking water source for 350,000 people.

Earlier this month, the New York Times published a series of investigative articles on the environmental impacts of the gas drilling boom in Pennsylvania, highlighting the lax regulations governing the gas drilling industry. Yesterday federal lawmakers, including Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), introduced legislation aimed at protecting drinking water from gas drilling pollution.

“Pennsylvania is being held up nationwide as a poster child for gas development gone wrong. And this shoddy pollution permit certainly won’t do anything to change its reputation. Even as state officials try to appear as if they are being tough on polluters, they keep bending over backwards to accommodate an industry that is clearly uninterested in anything but short-term profits,” said Earthjustice attorney Deborah Goldberg. “It’s high time that state leaders recognized that the health of the 350,000 people who depend on the Mon for their drinking water clearly comes first.”

The sole purpose of the Shallenberger plant (located in Masontown, PA, in the southwestern corner of the state) is to treat polluted water from industrial gas development in the Marcellus shale, including wastewater from the controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing—in which drillers blast millions of gallons of chemically-treated water into the earth to extract the gas. Clean Water Action has been in litigation since 2009 over a prior secret agreement to allow the plant several years to discharge incompletely treated wastewater, in spite of legal requirements that new wastewater treatment plants be built with adequate controls right from the start.

“As we detail in our comments, DEP has twice told the public that Shallenberger’s permit will contain one set of limits, while the agency is planning to enforce completely different standards. DEP needs to come clean with its true intentions and protect our drinking water from dirty gas extraction wastes,” stated Myron Arnowitt, PA State Director for Clean Water Action.

DEP first issued an unlawfully lenient discharge permit to Shallenberger in September 2008. After pollution in the Monongahela River exceeded water quality standards, the State entered into negotiations with Shallenberger to amend the permit. DEP gave the company more than three years from the end of August 2009 to meet new limits, however, and even those were inadequate. The negotiations were conducted behind closed doors, and the deal was never subject to public notice or review. The new draft permit also is subject to toothless deadlines and other deficiencies.

Heather Panek, a Clean Water Action member living in nearby Monongahela, PA, stated, “As a life long resident of the Mon Valley, I can’t understand why the state would allow Shallenberger to start polluting our drinking water. This plant has been operating successfully for a about a year without discharging a drop. Not only could there be health problems, if DEP allows untreated pollution into the river, but our businesses could be hurt as well. What person or business is going to want to move into a community without access to clean water?”

Read the comments filed.

Contacts

Kathleen Sutcliffe, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 235

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.