Using Barges For Frack Waste

Virtually no human activity occurs without some effect on the environment and some risk to human health. Reasonable trade-offs and minimized risk are the keys to our modern way of life.

On one controversial issue, disposing of the wastewater generated by many oil and natural gas drilling operations, the Coast Guard is proposing just such minimizing of risk and impact on the environment.

Coast Guard officials are recommending river transportation, by barge, be permitted for wastewater taken from hydraulic fracturing operations.

Some environmentalists were outraged at the Coast Guard report. They predict dire consequences if millions of gallons of “fracking” wastewater are transported on inland waterways.

They point out that millions of Americans get their drinking water from rivers on which the wastewater would be barged, and that the water contains some hazardous chemicals.

Here in Wheeling, the issue is especially significant because of a proposal by GreenHunter Water, a company that specializes in treating “frack water.” The firm has a facility in Warwood and plans to ship some wastewater out of it on barges.

As proponents of shipping fracking wastewater by barge point out, a variety of hazardous materials have been transported that way for decades, with comparatively few problems. When chemical spills occur in rivers, sometimes not from barges but from stationary sources, municipal water treatment plants merely close their intake valves until the dangerous river water has flowed past.

As far as threats to water quality go, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, OR-SANCO, has a long record of monitoring contaminants. ORSANCO does not seem to have a problem with the Coast Guard’s recommendation.

Again, there is risk in virtually all human activities. Minimizing it is the key – and using barges to transport fracking waste may do just that. The only alternatives appear to be trucks or rail cars, both of which have accident records substantially worse than the barge industry.

It appears several other federal agencies must sign off on the proposal before barges can be used to transport fracking waste. Their officials should look at the situation objectively – not through the political lens that so often seems to guide policy.