The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has agreed to allow public comment on permits at 49 fracking waste facilities.
The sites include tank farms, industrial treatment plants, and well pads that use, store or process liquid fracking waste.
The agency approved the permits in December and January without public comment. But environmental groups protested, saying the DEP’s own rules required a notice-and-comment period. The DEP agreed, in a signed settlement.
The 49 permits were renewals of existing permits, made after the agency updated its wastewater reuse and storage permitting program at the beginning of the year.
Without public comment, the environmental groups said people would not have been able to scrutinize the permits for 10 more years, the life of the new permit. Over that time, much of the facilities’ operations could change, said Lisa Hallowell, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, one of the groups that lobbied for the public comment period.
“It’s possible that there’s new infrastructure that’s been added (to a site) that would bring additional dangers or concerns that the community might want to know about,” Hallowell said. “The permit renewal cycle allows for all of this information to be packaged together and submitted to the people to scrutinize it. And in some cases, maybe not much has changed. But there’s certainly the potential for many, many components of the process to change.”
David Callahan, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said in a statement the groups’ push for more public comment was “another activist attempt to halt natural gas development” and said the facilities “have been rigorously reviewed and subject to regular inspection.”
According to state data, the 49 facilities handled at least 17 million barrels of waste combined in 2019. The vast majority of that waste is recycled, usually by re-using it in the fracking process.
But leaks or spills can pose a public risk. The waste contains carcinogenic chemicals, heavy metals, and high levels of radioactive materials. A 2011 analysis by federal scientists found concentrations of radium, a radioactive element found naturally underground, roughly 40 times what the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission classifies as “hazardous” or “radioactive” waste. (Federal law exempts oil and gas waste from being classified as “hazardous waste.”)
Hallowell said it’s important that communities know what is happening in these facilities. The review can include information on operations, traffic, and chemical analysis of the waste handled or stored on-site.
“All of those things are of interest to people who live nearby these facilities who might be concerned about what’s going on in their community, what is the potential for their exposure to the potentially dangerous environmental components that are being stored or transferred or processed at these sites,” Hallowell said.
The DEP says it will respond to public comments and complaints and could impose added conditions on the permits.
The 60-day comment period will begin March 31 at the latest.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.