PITTSBURGH (AP) - The shale gas drilling industry wants to use barges to move its potentially toxic wastewater across rivers and lakes to disposal sites across the country, but the U.S. Coast Guard 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."
He said the waste can't currently be shipped by barge.
The Coast Guard regulates the nation's waterways, and Roldan couldn't say when the agency would decide whether drilling wastewater can be shipped by barge. That's partly because experts from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation and Energy departments have weighed in, and a committee established by the White House will likely review the draft proposal.
The oil and gas industry uses water and chemicals to stimulate production of natural gas locked in shale, and some of that water comes back to the surface. The industry currently recycles some of it, and uses trucks to take it to industrial treatment plants or deep injection wells for treatment or disposal.
The waste is mostly water, but can also contain ultra-salty brines, heavy metals, natural radioactivity, and some of the chemicals used to free gas.
Roldan said the Coast Guard has a process in place for requests to transport chemicals or other substances by barge, but that the shale wastewater issue is undergoing "a higher level of review" since there are some unusual aspects to the issue. For example, many requests involve a specific chemical or liquid, but shale wastewater can contain a mix of natural and manmade compounds, and the mix varies by well.
Environmentalists said the possibility of a spill that could contaminate Pittsburgh-area rivers isn't worth the risk. A barge accident would be a "massive catastrophe," said Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action, an environmentalist group.
But industry officials who advocate waterway transport said barges are the safest, and cheapest, way to move the wastewater. They counter that other industrial materials, some toxic, are already moved on barges and question why the drilling industry should be treated differently.
The Coast Guard 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 already been confusion at inland ports in Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Ohio about the issue.
John Jack, vice president of business development and operations for GreenHunter Water, a company that handles wastewater for major oil and gas companies, said "nobody told us that we couldn't" move shale wastewater by barge.
GreenHunter had planned to start using barges before the end of the year because they believed the process was allowed, Jack said.
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.