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Challenges Regulating Fracking Wastewater "Cautionary Tale" in KY

Using water is a big part of high-volume fracking, so conservationists want the EPA to close a sizable loophole in the regulation of hazardous wastes from oil and gas drilling. Credit Greg Stotelmyer
Using water is a big part of high-volume fracking, so conservationists want the EPA to close a sizable loophole in the regulation of hazardous wastes from oil and gas drilling. Credit Greg Stotelmyer
October 12, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. - The Environmental Protection Agency largely has failed to regulate waste from oil and gas drilling, even though it admitted 27 years ago that the waste is hazardous.

With the boom in high-volume hydro-fracking, conservation and citizens groups are pushing the agency to finally close that big gap. Attorney Adam Kron with the Environmental Integrity Project says his group and others will go to court to make that happen.

"EPA just hasn't acted," he says. 'It's got clear authority to implement these regulations, but for whatever reason, once it made that pronouncement in 1988 it just stepped back, and that was its last word on the issue."

While EPA said the wastewater and drill cuttings are hazardous waste, it decided regulating the problem was best left to the states or through special rules the agency would write but never did.

Now, nearly three decades later, a study by Earthworks finds that no one knows where more than 60 percent of West Virginia's liquid waste ends up.

Tom FitzGerald, director with the Kentucky Resources Council, says Kentucky is "in a better place" because it has not experienced the widespread development of deep-well fracking that West Virginia has.

Earlier this year, the Kentucky Legislature added before-and-after water sampling at hydraulic fracking sites to the state's oil and gas regulations. FitzGerald says the fracking boom elsewhere is a "cautionary tale" that Kentucky still has to "get its act together" to get more protections in place.

"The next piece of the puzzle we need to work on in Kentucky is a cradle-to-grave tracking of water that is used for any hydro-fracking," he says.

FitzGerald says that should include what's happening to the wastes that are produced from the back flow of the frack water.

The oil and gas industry argues much of the waste is benign. Kron, however, says it contains things that should be handled more carefully.

"You would not want to be exposed to these wastes regularly," says Kron. "Benzene, toluene, metals like chromium, barium, and strontium and mercury. And then we've just got these extremely high levels of salts."

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY