January 17, 2014

Hot Report: Transport, Storage, and Disposal of Fracking Waste

OLR Report 2014-R-0016 answers three questions: How is the transportation, storage, and disposal of fracking waste regulated?  Are there best practices for transporting, storing, and disposing fracking waste? What studies have examined the potential dangers fracking waste poses to the public or ecology?

The transportation, storage, and disposal of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) waste are regulated under a variety of federal and state laws.  Contaminated water, which is fracking’s largest waste product, is typically (1) treated to remove contaminants and discharged into surface waters, (2) recycled for use on other fracking projects, or (3) injected into specialized wells.  Treating and discharging fracking waste water is generally regulated under the federal Clean Water Act, which establishes permitting standards for treatment facilities and water quality standards for the treated water being discharged back into surface waters.  Underground injections of fracking wastewater are regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which sets permitting requirements for injection wells.  Both laws allow federally approved state agencies to administer them.  States can also enact their own, more stringent, requirements.  Regulating the recycling of fracking waste water is generally left up to the states.

Regulating the handling, storing, and transporting of fracking waste water is also generally left to the states.  In some states, such as Pennsylvania, the waste is regulated under waste management laws that provide detailed standards for storing and transporting waste and procedures for spills or accidental discharges.  Recently enacted regulations in Ohio also require fracking waste water haulers to install and use electronic transponders to monitor their shipments.  Vermont is the only state that has banned the treatment, disposal, or storage of fracking waste, although Connecticut and New Jersey have considered similar bills.

The American Petroleum Institute has published two guidance documents aimed at identifying the industry’s best practices used to minimize environmental impacts associated with the acquisition, use, treatment, and disposal of fracking waste water.  These documents contain numerous general recommendations for planning, training, and collaborating with government authorities when dealing with fracking wastes.  In addition, State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations, Inc., (STRONGER) issues guidelines for measuring state regulations and performs voluntary state reviews to evaluate a state’s regulations against its guidelines and make recommendations for improvements.  STRONGER is a non-profit, multi-stakeholder organization funded by grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy, and American Petroleum Institute.

Several studies on the potential dangers related to fracking waste and its disposal (e.g., seismic activity associated with injection wells, elevated radiation levels, and contamination from chemicals added to fracking fluids) have been published in recent years.  A listing of some those published by government agencies or peer-reviewed journals is included below.  In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue its study of the potential impacts of fracking on drinking water resources sometime this year.

For more information, read the full report.