On Jan. 15, 2009, Kingston city engineer Ralph Swenson received an e-mail from Chesapeake Energy, a natural gas drilling company, asking what the cost per gallon would be of processing its fracking waste. Because the plant does have some excess capacity — though most is expected to be taken up by the under-construction AVR housing development — Swenson considered the request. He had two main concerns: the accumulation of arsenic, lead, cadmium, zinc, nickel, copper, silver and possibly other heavy metals from the waste in the sludge, which could cause a problem with its disposal, and the possible exposure of workers to two solvents, benzene and toluene, known carcinogens.
The amount of heavy metals would be at levels “we’d need to be concerned about, not that the levels are excessively high for the plant to handle,” said Swenson. Sludge at the plant is recycled into pellets, and Swenson said he concluded the metals wouldn’t be a problem, since the pellets are used for landscaping purposes only (the pellets by law cannot be used for food production). Also, the solvents, which are harmful when they volatize in a closed space, wouldn’t put workers at risk, since at the plant they’d be volatizing outside.
Swenson said he calculated 5,000 gallons per day was the most the plant could process, but the company wanted “20,000, 50,000 or 100,000 gallons per day,” so he told Chesapeake Energy no. “We’d consider it,” he said. But because Kingston would only accept a small amount, “they’d probably want to take it to larger plants or develop their own plants.”
George Cacchio, whose company, CAMO Pollution Control, Inc., is the managing operator at the plant, said the Kingston treatment facility does have “unused” capacity. However, to accept the mining wastewater, the producer would have to prepare a detailed analysis of the waste. Pretreatment might be required, before the waste was trucked to Kingston, and the DEC would require a model showing that the additional waste would not violate the plant’s SPDES permit limits, or specify a revise of the permit. Cacchio said he couldn’t comment on the feasibility of such a project without knowing what was in the waste. (To date, none of the operating staff has been approached by a natural gas drilling company, he said.)
Walter Hang, owner of environmental data firm Toxics Targeting, based in Ithaca, said it’s a fantasy the Kingston WWTP could safely process any amount of fracking waste. “That WWTP was not designed, constructed or maintained to handle the wide range of pollutants in gas drilling wastewater. Among the contaminants in the sludge is the radionuclides. You can’t this give the sludge to people and have them put this stuff on their vegetable garden.”
While a temporary moratorium has thus far prevented hydraulic fracturing from occurring in New York State, the processing of gas-drilling wastewater by municipal wastewater treatment plants has not been prohibited. Starting in 2009, a handful of municipal WWTPs in New York State began processing gas-drilling wastewater, including Cayuga Heights, Canandaigua, Watertown, Auburn and Sherburne. Cayuga Heights, a small community outside Ithaca, took 3 million gallons from a drilling operation in Pennsylvania, according to Hang, before residents got wind of the waste, protested, and the practice stopped.
In Auburn, the city council passed a resolution banning the treatment of gas-drilling wastewater from the sewage treatment facility after a public outcry. The ban stopped an annual revenue stream of $600,000 to the plant, according to a local news report.
Asked how this processing of gas-drilling waste was allowed under the plants’ current SPDES permits, Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the DEC in Albany, responded that “as far as we are aware, these facilities only accepted vertical drilling wastewater, not high-volume hydraulic fracturing waste. The plants have to sample the wastewater and conduct a headwork analysis to ensure the plant’s treatment system is able to handle the new waste stream in a manner that does not impair treatment or cause a violation of standards or violate permit conditions.” She said that the plants cannot accept wastewater from high-volume hydraulic fracturing drilling until DEC grants a SPDES permit modification, “which we have not done for any facility.”
“That’s factually incorrect,” responded Hang, one of the activists who raised the alarm about the processing of the waste at these facilities. “Cayuga Heights never conducted a headworks analysis. If you don’t know what is in gas drilling wastewater, you can’t conduct a headworks analysis. And if you look at the data from Auburn, you’ll see there are huge data gaps in the attachment I provided to the government. These municipalities did not in any way comply with DEC’s own regulatory requirements. They accepted gas-drilling wastewater, and now they have stopped, but not because of any effort by the DEC. The DEC is simply an ineffective regulatory agency when it comes to gas-drilling wastewater.”