COLUMBUS (AP) - A Texas-based company wants to use river barges to move its potentially toxic wastewater in Ohio, but federal officials must first decide whether it's safe.
Grapevine, Texas-based GreenHunter Water has its plan on hold as authorities investigate environmental questions regarding the wastewater from the gas drilling industry.
The industry uses water and chemicals to stimulate production of natural gas locked in shale. Some of that water comes back to the surface. It gets recycled or is taken by truck to industrial treatment plants or deep injection wells for treatment or disposal.
GreenHunter Water has bought liquid-storage tanks at an Ohio River terminal in New Matamoras in southeastern Ohio. The terminal could serve as a transfer point to truck the waste.
The U.S. Coast Guard also is looking into the matter.
"It may be hazardous," said Commander Michael Roldan, chief of the Coast Guard's Hazardous Material Division, stressing the word "may."
He said that the waste can't currently be shipped by barge.
The Coast Guard regulates the nation's waterways, and Roldan couldn't say when the agency would decide whether drilling wastewater can be shipped by barge. That's partly because experts from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation and Energy departments have weighed in, and a committee established by the White House will likely review the draft proposal.
The waste is mostly water, but can also contain ultra-salty brines, heavy metals, natural radioactivity, and some of the chemicals used to free gas.
Roldan said the Coast Guard has a process in place for requests to transport chemicals or other substances by barge, but that the shale wastewater issue is undergoing "a higher level of review" since there are some unusual aspects to the issue. For example, many requests involve a specific chemical or liquid, but shale wastewater can contain a mix of natural and manmade compounds, and the mix varies by well.
Environmentalists said the possibility of a spill that could contaminate area rivers isn't worth the risk. A barge accident would be a "massive catastrophe," said Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action, a national environmental advocacy organization.
But industry officials who advocate waterway transport said barges are the safest, and cheapest, way to move the wastewater.
They counter that other industrial materials, some toxic, are already moved on barges and question why the drilling industry should be treated differently.
The Coast Guard plans to publish its proposal on transporting wastewater in the Federal Register.
Then, the public and the industry will have an opportunity to weigh in.