Barge industry wants changes to proposed frack water regulations

Using barges to transport frack wastewater from the booming natural gas fields has moved a step closer with a proposal from the U.S. Coast Guard, but barge owners want changes concerning responsibility for “bad batches” of cargo.

In October 2013, the Coast Guard issued a proposal for carriage of “conditionally permitted” shale-gas extraction wastewater in bulk, seeking comments from the barge industry and other interested parties. Under the proposed policy, a barge owner may request an endorsement of a barge’s Certificate of Inspection to allow the barge to transport frack wastewater.

The proposal outlines an “additional requirement” the Coast Guard may impose that a barge owner chemically analyze each barge load of frack wastewater to ensure it meets regulatory guidelines. The requirement has raised concerns from groups including the American Waterways Operators (AWO), which supports a recommendation from the Marcellus Shale Gas Coalition and the American Petroleum Institute that the policy be changed to place chemical-analysis requirements onto the cargo offerer rather than the barge owner.

The change supported by the AWO would require testing and documentation to take place before water is loaded onto a barge. A barge may carry water from a variety of wells and companies, making it impossible to determine ownership of the water after it’s loaded if it does not meet the requirements.

“The question is what would we do with that bad batch of water, who pays for the disposal and how would we dispose of it,” said Peter Stephaich, chairman and CEO of Houston, Pa.-based barge operator Campbell Transportation Co. “We wouldn’t know which truck it came from or which customer it came from.”

Making the cargo offerer responsible would make the policy “consistent with current Resource Conservation and Recovery Act requirements, which place responsibility on the generator of hazardous waste to control the waste from the time it is generated to the time it is disposed,” said Jennifer Carpenter, executive vice president of national advocacy for the AWO, in comments to the Coast Guard.

Since 2008, thousands of natural gas wells have been drilled in the Marcellus shale formation that underlies parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, New York and some neighboring states. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, pumps thousands of gallons of water, along with sand and chemicals, into the ground to break up rock formations and free the gas. Some of the water, along with groundwater, returns to the surface. It can contain chemicals, salt and heavy metals, which can pick up naturally occurring radiation underground.

The wastewater can be reprocessed to remove the contaminants or it can be injected into the ground. Currently, the water is being transported by truck and rail, and the drilling industry is looking for cheaper and safer alternatives to move the water to reprocessing centers and disposal sites in Ohio, Texas and Louisiana.

The frack water is not covered as a “listed cargo” under existing regulations because the composition can vary from one load to the next.

To address the threat of radiation, the proposed policy calls for barge owners to survey barges before they can carry another cargo, and before personnel are allowed to enter the barge. The AWO has recommended that if a cargo meets the criteria for movement, it would not be necessary to survey the barge before another cargo can be carried or personnel are allowed to enter the tank.

Environmental groups fear a spill of toxic wastewater if the frack material is moved by barge, but the industry has countered that it already safely moves thousands of tons of chemicals, radioactive waste and petroleum products.

“There are people currently moving the water by truck who would be happy to use barges if it can save them money,” Stephaich said. “We need to know exactly what the rules are going to be and we’ll take it from there.”    

By Professional Mariner Staff