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Update on State Water Quality Rules Affecting Gas Extraction and Other Industries

Posted: June 20, 2010

Proposed changes to Pennsylvania's water quality standards regulating total dissolved solids (TDS) moved a step closer to becoming law after a decision made by the Pennsylvania Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) on June 17, 2010. The new effluent standards for wastewater discharges will affect the state's oil and gas industries and other water users. The regulations now go to the Pennsylvania Senate and House environment committees and then to the Attorney General’s office.

Written by Charles W. Abdalla & Joy R. Drohan

In April 2009, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced plans to amend existing rules to establish new water quality effluent standards for wastewater high in total dissolved solids (TDS), including those from natural gas drilling operations and other industries. The rule aims to guarantee that waters of the Commonwealth will not exceed a threshold of 500 milligram/liter (mg/l).  The proposed TDS effluent standards are proposed to be effective January 1, 2011 and apply to discharges that did not exist before April 1, 2009. 

One part of the DEP rule-making amends Chapter 95 of the Pennsylvania Code, which describes standards for wastewaters to be discharged to Pennsylvania waters. Chapter 95’s focus is on effluent standards – wastewater discharged to surface water – in order to protect the state’s water resources.  The regulation applies to new and expanding loadings of TDS in wastewater discharges. It establishes effluent standards by industry sector, including standards for the natural gas industry, and a standard for all other industries with an optional variance provision.  Small sources of TDS loadings are exempted.

Total dissolved solids is a measure of dissolved matter (salts, organic matter, minerals, etc.) in water. Inorganic constituents comprise most of the total concentration of TDS. TDS can be naturally present in water or the result of mining, oil and gas drilling, or some industrial or municipal treatment of water.

The proposed amendments to Chapter 95 were first open for public comment in November 2009 and have undergone significant changes based on more than 4200 comments from the public and input from advisory committees. 

Several key elements on the proposed rules approved by the Pennsylvania Independent Regulatory Review Commission on June 17, 2010 are:

  • A standard of 500 mg/1 of TDS will be applied to the natural gas sector. Specifically, wastewaters come from fracturing, production, field exploration, drilling, or well completion of natural gas wells. (Note: the treatment standard for most other industries is being set at 2,000 mg/l threshold – see below).  The state’s rationale in the rules for the more stringent standard for natural gas wastewaters included that wastewaters from the shale gas extraction are of higher concentration and represent higher loadings compared to other sectors. Another rationale was that treatment and disposal options exist. Also, few other states, including Arkansas, Oklahoma, New York and Texas, allow return of wastewater to their surface waters. The final rationale offered was that the shale gas industry is relatively new to Pennsylvania and that without TDS standards this new emerging sector could impact water being supplied to existing industries, placing them at an economic disadvantage.
  • The approach establishes an effluent standard for sectors other than natural gas well operations at 2,000 mg/1 of TDS for TDS loads of more than 100,000 pounds per day and allows a variance from this standard under certain conditions specific to the watershed where the discharge is located.
  • The final rulemaking includes wastewater effluent limits on sulfate and chloride and for other contaminants commonly found in natural gas drilling wastewater such as barium and strontium.

DEP has estimated that wastewater treatment costs to meet the new rules will range from 12 to 25 cents per gallon.

The proposed regulations now go to the state Senate and House environmental committees. Then they must be approved by the Pennsylvania Attorney General before becoming law.

For more detail on the proposed wastewater standards as they stood as of June 17, 2010, visit the IRRC website

A forthcoming article will address new water quality rules for chlorides under Chapter 93 of the Pennsylvania Code. This code sets water quality standards for Pennsylvania’s waters necessary to protect their designated uses, such as aquatic life and drinking water supply. The amendments will set new effluent standards for discharges of chlorides.  The proposed rules were approved by the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board in March 2010.  They were published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin on May 1, 2010 and the public comment period closed June 15, 2010.