Will Toxic Fracking Wastewater Be Transported by Barge?
By Emily DeMarco
The shale gas drilling industry wants to move its wastewater by barge on rivers and lakes across the country. But the U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates the nation’s waterways, must first decide whether it’s safe.
“It may be hazardous,” said Commander Michael Roldan, chief of the Coast Guard’s Hazardous Material Division, stressing the word ‘may.’ “If it is, it would not be allowed to ship under bulk.”
Right now, he pointed out during an interview with PublicSource, it can’t be shipped by barge, even though there has been confusion in Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Ohio about whether it could be.
The Coast Guard has been considering whether to allow the industry to use the waterways for about a year, according to Roldan, who said the question came up when the Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh—the local office of the Coast Guard—called the Washington office to clarify whether bulk transport was allowed after Marcellus Shale drillers began making inquiries.
The Coast Guard’s decision would affect more than Pittsburgh’s iconic three rivers. Nearly 12,000 miles of waterways could be open to these waterborne behemoths, each carrying 10,000 barrels of [fracking] wastewater.
Like so many questions involving the shale gas industry, it’s a divisive one. Environmentalists said the possibility of a spill that could contaminate Pittsburgh’s rivers with chemicals isn’t worth the risk. But industry officials who advocate waterway transport said barges are the safest, and cheapest, way to move this stuff.
A barge accident would be a “massive catastrophe,” said Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action, a national environmental advocacy organization.
“It’s not just a contamination of a waterway,” Hvozdovich said. “You’re talking about the contamination of the drinking water supply for about half a million people ... It seems like a very bad idea.”
However, industry officials and transportation experts counter that other industrial materials, some toxic, are moved on barges now. They include chlorine, hydrochloric acid and anhydrous ammonia. Why should the drilling industry be treated differently? they ask.
Anyone who says moving the wastewater is a danger doesn’t know what’s on the waters already, said John Jack, vice president of business development and operations for GreenHunter Water, a company that handles wastewater for major oil companies.
“Look what’s going down the waters right now,” Jack said, “highly toxic stuff ... There’s nothing in our product that’s hazardous.”
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, requires about five millions gallons of water per well. Water is combined with chemicals and sand and shot deep underground, releasing pockets of gas from shale rock formations.
Depending on the well, about 15 to 80 percent of what was injected returns to the surface. That’s called ‘flowback.’ Plus, the well continues to regurgitate naturally occurring water from inside the shale, which is called ‘produced water.’ Both liquids become wastewater, which is often called “brine.”
Complications arise for the Coast Guard’s analysis because companies use proprietary mixtures of chemicals in fracking. And, salt, hydrocarbons and radioactive elements that occur naturally underground catch a free ride with the watery mixture to the surface.
“If there wasn’t the variability, this would be a much easier process,” Roldan said.
The agency is determining appropriate ‘ceilings’ for each component in the wastewater. Companies that want to ship by bulk would have to test their wastewater first. If the components are under the Coast Guard’s ceilings, companies would be given the green light, assuming approval.
The Coast Guard’s biggest concern about the wastewater is what Roldan calls the ‘bathtub ring’ effect inside the barges. Just as, after many showers and baths, calcium in tap water can leave a ring around the tub, radioactive particles in the wastewater may accumulate inside the barge.
Workers and inspectors on the barges could be at risk after long-term exposure, he said, and the agency would likely require regular testing of the barges for radioactivity.
Roldan couldn’t say when the Coast Guard’s determination of whether wastewater can be safely moved on barges would be complete. In part, that is because the nationwide issue is complicated. For example, experts from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Departments of Transportation (DOT) and Department of Energy have weighed in already.
Others, including a committee established by the White House, will likely review the draft proposal.
The agency plans to publish its proposal on transporting wastewater in the Federal Register. Then, the public and the industry will have an opportunity to weigh in.
But there has been great confusion at the ports about the rules.
Officials at GreenHunter, which moves wastewater for some of the largest drilling companies in the Marcellus and Utica Shales by truck, planned to start using barges before the end of the year because they believed it was allowed, Jack said. They’ve been investing in five terminals in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
“I’ve had the regional commanders out to our sites and nobody told us that we couldn’t” move it by barge, he said. His understanding, he said, is that it’s being done in Texas and Louisiana.
The Pittsburgh office of the Coast Guard declined to comment.
But Roldan’s reaction was immediate when asked whether any company is allowed to do this. “No, they’re not allowed,” he said. “You may want to tell them before we catch them.”
However, he said he understood the confusion because of the way the current regulations are worded. “A liberal reading … could lead to a misinterpretation,” he said.
One question the agency couldn’t answer is the expected volume of wastewater that would be shipped over the rivers.
“We’ve been asking ourselves this,” Roldan said.
In Pennsylvania alone, about 23 million barrels of wastewater were generated in 2011, according to PublicSource calculations using data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Oil & Gas Reporting website. The data are self-reported by the producers and are not vetted by the Department of Environmental Protection.
While about 99 percent of the waste from shale drilling is just water, the remaining one percent is salt, chemicals and radioactive particles.
A spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition declined to answer questions about moving waste on barges and instead emphasized the industry’s commitment to recycling wastewater.
Today, new technology has increased the capacity for on-site recycling, but that is costly. Transporting the waste off-site to disposal or treatment locations is still needed by the industry.
Less road wear and tear
Shale gas companies have good reason to eye the waterways.
Transporting wastewater by barges has environmental, safety and economic benefits, Jack, of GreenHunter, said. For example, a major drilling company would save 58,000 trucking hours by using barges.
And trucks have about 2,000 accidents for every barge accident, he said, citing data from the DOT and the Coast Guard.
James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, an agency that advocates for waterway transport, said using barges is a good idea.
“The more that it can be moved on waterways, the less wear and tear of roads,” he said, adding that barges also produce less air pollution than trucks.
And they’re a fraction of the cost. Barges cost only about 10 percent of the cost to move the waste by truck, said Jim Kruse, director of the Center for Ports and Waterways Institute at Texas A&M University. They are 20 to 30 percent cheaper than trains, he said.
The change would not eliminate trucks because they'd still be needed to get the wastewater from the drill rigs to the barges.
Three gas drilling companies have already approached Pittsburgh-based Campbell Transportation Co., about moving their wastewater by barge, said Peter Stephaich, one of Campbell’s shareholders.
“We are regulated by just about everybody,” he said, listing federal and state agencies that oversee barge companies. Stephaich said he’s confident that wastewater will be moved responsibly.
“If we move it, we’ll move it within the rules,” he said. “If the costs are too high, we won’t do it.”
Operators like Campbell may have to purchase new equipment, retrofit their infrastructure, and train their crews.
Benjamin Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University about 60 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, is one expert who didn’t know about the Coast Guard’s review.
“Oh crap,” he said. “A lot of things could go wrong.”
For example, wastewater contains bromides. Bromides transform into carcinogens when they are pumped through water treatment facilities, Stout said. (Stout is a board member of FracTracker, a non-profit that disseminates data about the shale gas industry. Both FracTracker and PublicSource are funded, in part, by the Heinz Endowments.)
If there was a barge accident, the treatment facilities would have to shut their intake valves of river water, he said. Cities such as Pittsburgh and Wheeling use water from the Ohio River for drinking.
Despite his alarm, Stout said he is glad that the Coast Guard is studying the issue because it’s one more determination about an industry that currently doesn’t offer a lot of transparency.
Asked whether the Coast Guard is being lobbied by the industry, Roldan said: “We’re not really feeling pressure. We could deny it.”
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
Click here to sign a petition to tell the Bureau of Land Management to issue strong rules for federal fracking leases on public lands.
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By Zahida Sherman
Cooking has always intimidated me. As a child, I would anxiously peer into the kitchen as my mother prepared Christmas dinner for our family.
Falling in Love With Food All Over Again<p>Slowly, through my most intimate relationships with friends and partners, I began to see the beauty — and rewards — of cooking.</p><p>I got tired of giving in to defeat and always bringing chips or paper products to social gatherings. I started asking my mom to send me her Christmas and Thanksgiving recipes. I even volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner at my place.</p><p>Each time I heard my loved ones sing the praises of the foods I prepared for them, I felt a tinge more confident that I could carry out our traditions my way.</p><p>In reaching out to other relatives for their favorite recipes, I learned that they had a little help of their own. They didn't rely solely on their ancestral cooking instincts. They turned to Black chefs for guidance.</p><p>These 7 cookbooks by Black chefs have inspired my family and fed us in nutrients, joy, and spiritual sustenance. They're also helping me overcome my personal fears of cooking.</p>
Get CookingWhether you're in recovery from cooking fears like me, or are just looking to expand your culinary confidence with dishes honoring Black heritage, these Black chefs are here to support you on your journey.Turn on some music, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and throw down for yourself or your loved ones. Glorious flavors await you.
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By Tara Lohan
The conclusion to decades of work to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River east of Bellingham, Washington began with a bang yesterday as crews breached the dam with a carefully planned detonation. This explosive denouement is also a beginning.
The History<p>The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.</p>
A Plan Comes Together<p>The Middle Fork dam is not a pool dam built for water storage. Much of the time, water flows over the top until dam operators drop a floodgate to divert water to new locations. That water travels about 14 miles through tunnel and pipeline to Mirror Lake, then Anderson Creek, and to Lake Whatcom before finally being delivered to residents' taps.</p><p>Before removing the dam, engineers had to move the water intake 700 feet upstream and situate it at an elevation that still enabled city water withdrawals throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions.</p><p>They also needed to make sure that the rushing water didn't sweep up fish and accidentally send them through the water-supply system.</p><p>"The solution required a fairly complex design in the intake structure, including a fish exit pipe out of that structure to put fish back into the river in a way that meets current environmental permit standards," explains LaCroix.</p>
Project layout for the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack diversion dam and rebuilding of water intake. City of Bellingham<p>Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.</p><p>"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time," she says. "A static fish ladder just can't provide that same level of ecosystem benefit."</p>
Restoration Success<p>Despite local authorities' championing dam removal on the Middle Fork, the project has largely flown under the radar, overshadowed in the Pacific Northwest by heated discussions about a much larger potential project — removing <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/feds-reject-removal-of-4-snake-river-dams-in-key-report/" target="_blank">four federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River</a>, a major tributary of the Columbia River.</p><p>Proponents of dam removal there see it as the best chance for recovering threatened salmon populations, including Chinook, which could help starving Southern Resident killer whales. Those dams also provide irrigation water, barge navigation and hydropower, so there's been more pushback against removal efforts.</p><p>Previous dam removals around the country, however, have proved successful at aiding fish recovery and river restoration.</p><p>Most notably the 1999 demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/edwards-dam-removal/" target="_blank">Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River</a> restored the annual run of alewives, a type of herring essential to the food web. The fish run has gone from zero to 5 million in the two decades since dam removal. Blueback herring, striped bass, sturgeon and shad have also extended their reach. And the resurgence has brought back osprey, bald eagles and other wildlife, too.</p><p>The overwhelming success of river restoration on the Kennebec helped to spur a nationwide dam removal movement that's now seen 1,200 dams come down since 1999. Last year a record <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/a-record-26-states-removed-dams-in-2019/" target="_blank">90 dams</a> were removed in 26 states, including <a href="https://therevelator.org/cleveland-forest-dam-removal/" target="_blank">20 dams in California's Cleveland National Forest</a>.</p>
Spider excavators remove on dam on San Juan Creek in California's Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell, USFS<p>The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/" target="_blank">two dams</a> on Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they've observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.</p>
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack<p>McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.</p><p>Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.</p><p>The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.</p><p>"This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species," says McEwan.</p><p>Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.</p><p>That <em>could</em> help Southern Resident killer whales.</p><p>"When you get to the ocean, it's a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas," McEwan says.</p><p>Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.</p><p>Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.</p><p>"Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system," says Delgado.</p><p><span></span>But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won't be immediate.<br></p><p>"The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it's going to take quite a while to rebound," she says. "But the big picture is that what's good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined."</p><p>After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.</p>
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A new tool called The Food Systems Dashboard aims to save decision makers time and energy by painting a complete picture of a country's food system. Created by the Johns Hopkins' Alliance for a Healthier World, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Dashboard compiles food systems data from over 35 sources and offers it as a public good.
By Manuela Callari
It can grow to a maximum of six inches (16 centimeters), change color depending on mood and habitat, and, like all seahorses, the White's seahorse male gestates its young. But this tiny snouted fish is under threat.
Building an Ocean Seahorse Destination<p>Seahorses are found in tropical and temperate coastal water worldwide, but are most abundant around Australia, China and the Philippines. </p><p>Trade in the tiny creatures is strictly regulated because of their use in traditional medicine, aquariums and their sale as dried curios. But because they are poor swimmers and cannot easily move elsewhere, habitat loss is a particular threat for these curious animals. </p><p>Seahorses wrap their tails around seagrass and corals to avoid being carried away on currents. They use the habitat to spawn and hide from predators such as crabs, while also feeding on riches of plankton and small crustaceans living in the reef.</p><p><span></span>Where corals aren't available, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aqc.1217" target="_blank">scientists</a> found seahorses taking up residence in fishing nets and old crab traps abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. </p>
Mixing With the Locals<p>Baby seahorse mortality is high in the wild because they are easily caught, so those bred in the protected environment of the aquarium weren't ready to be released into the wild until early May.</p><p>The team released 90 new arrivals into Sydney Harbor, placing some directly into the purpose-built hotels, and others onto a net that wild seahorses had already settled on.</p><p>Before setting them free, the researchers marked each young seahorse with a fluorescent tag with unique IDs inserted just beneath the skin to track how they get on in the different environments. </p><p>"The most exciting part was being able to put these animals into the wild and then go back a month later and still see them surviving and growing," said McCracken. </p><p>The seahorses will be old enough to mate and reproduce around October or November 2020. And researchers hope that by then, they will be able to breed with the wild population. </p>
Building a Global Seahorse Hotel Chain<p>With seahorses everywhere facing the loss of their coral reef homes, similar projects have sprung up in places like Greece and South Africa, home to the world's most endangered seahorse, the Knysna seahorse. </p><p>"The endangered South African seahorse is benefiting from something quite similar, even though it wasn't intentional," said Peter Teske, professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Johannesburg.</p><p>In the South African <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322649251_An_endangered_seahorse_selectively_chooses_an_artificial_structure" target="_blank">case</a>, seahorses have bedded down in "Reno mattresses" — wire cages filled with rocks — that were used to build a new marina. Researchers from NGO Knysna Basin Project found the structures acted as a refuge for the animals.<span></span></p><p><span></span>While Teske describes the seahorse hotels as "a positive news story" and a great way to create public awareness of conservation, he added that establishing artificial habitats in some areas will only prevent the extinction of local populations.</p><p>"For a complete recovery, it is necessary to give the natural habitat a chance to regenerate," said the seahorse expert. </p>
Underwater Mascot<p>In Australia, the researchers hope the project could provide an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the plight of the Sydney seahorses but the other animals with which it shares its ocean habitat.</p><p>The waters around Sydney and the east coast are rich in biodiversity and include several threatened species like the weedy seadragon — a relative of the seahorse — and the grey nurse shark. Like the seahorse, they're also under pressure from pollution, ocean traffic and habitat loss through storms and coastal construction. </p><p>"It's a good thing to get people's support and interest. The seahorses are a useful vehicle to get people concerned if the harbor is in trouble," said David Booth, professor of marine ecology at the University of Technology Sydney who is also working on the project. </p><p>The hotels have become an attraction for divers hoping to catch a glimpse of these small but near mythical creatures. </p><p>"Everyone loves seahorses," added Booth, "they are so popular." </p>
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