Can Municipal Treatment Plants Handle Fracking Wastewater?

The discussion about fracking wastewater is far from over. As the City of Auburn, N.Y., learned, municipal plants are just beginning to understand how drilling wastewater affects a treatment system.
Can Municipal Treatment Plants Handle Fracking Wastewater?
One thing is certain: Discussions about fracking wastewater — from its contents to the capabilities of wastewater treatment plants — are far from over.

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A discussion about drilling wastewater has stalled in Auburn, N.Y. after an engineering firm determined the city’s wastewater treatment plant cannot handle the waste without further studies. GHD Inc., in Cazenovia, N.Y. conducted a headworks analysis for the City of Auburn and reported that high chloride levels in the gas drilling wastewater could damage the plant, which already accepts industrial wastewater from several factories.

According to Vicky Murphy, Auburn’s director of municipal utilities, the city’s wastewater treatment plant mainly accepted produced wastewater, although it did take some flowback water from vertically mined wells.

“Chloride is already high in our waste stream,” says Douglas Selby, Auburn city manager in a article. “Adding the gas well water that’s got chloride in it would possibly create issues with our biological process that nitrifies the water that converts ammonia to an inert form.” 

Municipal plant implications
What could this mean for other municipal wastewater treatment plants in New York? In the state, only one plant — Niagara Falls, which was built to handle heavy chemical industry waste — is non-biological. But there, the city council has already voted to ban natural gas drilling activity, including the transportation of fracking wastewater.

The report stated that Auburn could handle the wastewater with some further studies and changes to its system, but for now, city officials are recommending against the additional expense of increased reporting.

Wastewater legislature updates
All the while, fracking wastewater — and its subsequent treatment at municipal plants — remains a polarizing discussion in several states. On May 12, the New Jersey Senate passed a bill that would ban the processing and discharge of waste from fracking operations in neighboring states; Governor Chris Christi has previously vetoed a similar bill. On April 29, a New York State Senate committee killed a bill to ban the import of hydrofracking waste into the state. And Massachusetts and Connecticut are working on legislature that would ban the treatment, storage or disposal of fracking wastewater.

In Michigan, updated regulations will require even greater transparency of the chemicals used in fracking operations, since that information is critical for utilities eventually treating the wastewater. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently began a 90-day public comment period, asking whether companies should be forced to disclose the contents of fracking fluid.

One thing is certain: discussions about fracking wastewater — from its contents to the capabilities of wastewater treatment plants — are far from over. More than likely, stories like these will continue to evolve in the months to come.


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