Environmental groups are beefing up a legal challenge to a backroom deal that would allow a new wastewater treatment plant to dump 500,000 gallons of water polluted by gas drilling chemicals into the Monongahela River each day.
The nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice filed an amended appeal on behalf of Clean Water Action late yesterday calling an agreement between the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ("DEP") and Shallenberger Construction, Inc., illegal and asking the state Environmental Hearing Board to take a second look at the fast-tracked approval of the company's wastewater treatment plant construction.
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 the process known as hydraulic fracturing—in which drillers blast millions of gallons of chemically-treated water into the earth to extract the gas. The agreement was issued quietly—without any formal notice in the official Pennsylvania Bulletin—and comes as the state is undergoing a gas drilling boom.
"We know that Pennsylvania is facing enormous pressure from gas drillers who are generating contaminated water faster than the state's treatment plants can handle it," said Earthjustice attorney Deborah Goldberg. "Still, the health of the 350,000 people who depend on the Monongahela River for their drinking water should come first. We're asking the State not to skimp on its due diligence."
DEP is requiring other proposed treatment plants that expect to handle gas well wastewater to limit or monitor the amounts of toxic chemicals they discharge into drinking water sources. Not so with the Shallenberger plant. The agreement would allow dumping of untreated fluids into the Monongahela River without any testing for most of the dangerous chemicals common in gas wastes, including known carcinogens such as benzene.
"As we detail in our appeal, DEP is failing to set limits on many toxic pollutants known to be in Marcellus drilling wastewater. Carcinogens like arsenic and benzene are required to be limited in our water to protect our health. Yet DEP is not even requiring testing for these dangerous toxins, let alone requiring some kind of treatment," 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 last fall, the State entered into negotiations with Shallenberger to amend the permit, but DEP gave the company more than three years from the end of August 2009 to meet new limits, and even those are inadequate. The negotiations were conducted privately, and the outcome was never subject to public notice or review.
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 is allowing Shallenberger to pollute our drinking water for years without taking responsibility for treatment. Not only could there be health problems, but it will impact our businesses as well. What person or business is going to want to move into a community without access to clean water?"
In the first eight months of 2009, DEP issued more than 1,100 permits for gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale gas formation, up from 97 in 2007. The amount of waste being generated far outstrips the state's treatment and disposal capacity. Instead of reducing the pace of drilling, the State appears to be expediting approval of new and modified wastewater treatment plants without following applicable environmental laws.
Read the appeal (PDF)