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But the EPA isn't going to be moving fast on potential wastewater "pre-treatment" standards it can impose under the Clean Water Act. The first thing it plans to do is conduct extensive data gathering, including site visits, stakeholder outreach and development of a national survey of the industry. That process is likely to take years. The EPA is already trying to do a survey of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water, requested by Congress in 2010, which the agency has been trying to get off the ground for a year. Any results of that first study won't be ready until the end of 2012, if then. And that is only a study.
The potential action under the Clean Water Act the EPA announced in late October has a more direct link to potential regulatory action. There are already effluent standards for the oil and gas industry which prohibit release of shale wastewater into oceans, rivers and streams. There are no "pre-treatment" standards pertaining either to the fracking chemicals or the wastewater disgorged from the well, which can total up to 1 million gallons from a single well within the first 30 days after fracturing.
Daniel Whitten, vice president of strategic communications for America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), says, "Like all oversight of natural gas development, wastewater disposal is actively regulated at the state level. ANGA continues to believe that state regulatory professionals are best qualified to assess the unique geological characteristics of the shale plays in their region and the appropriate water disposal requirements that arise from those conditions. As EPA officials move forward, we encourage them to partner with the states and take into serious consideration state regulators' existing on-the-ground expertise and ongoing oversight activities."
Wastewater associated with shale gas extraction can contain high levels of total dissolved solids (TDS), fracturing fluid additives, metals and naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM). The big concern in terms of wastewater is TDS which is found at levels typically about 100,000 ppm and can be as high as 400,000 ppm. Available data indicates the levels of TDS in shale gas wastewaters can often exceed recommended drinking water concentrations by a factor of 200.
In terms of current wastewater disposal practices, Marcellus shale gas is generally recycled and reused. But re-use of shale gas wastewater is, in part, dependent on the levels of pollutants in the wastewater and the proximity of other fracturing sites that might re-use the wastewater.