Penn. natgas water treatment plant challenged

PHILADELPHIA Tue Nov 3, 2009 5:15pm EST

PHILADELPHIA Nov 3 (Reuters) - Environmentalists have challenged the proposed construction of a plant that would process waste water from natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania's booming Marcellus Shale field, an activist group said on Tuesday.

Clean Water Action, a nonprofit, said the plant would discharge drilling waste into the Monongahela River in southwest Pennsylvania without testing for most of the toxic chemicals that form part of the fluid.

As energy companies rush to develop the vast Marcellus field -- estimated to contain enough natural gas to meet total U.S. needs for a decade or more -- opponents of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", say chemicals used in the process are contaminating aquifers used for drinking water, and endangering the health of millions of people.

Clean Water Action accused the state's Department of Environmental Protection of illegally entering an agreement with Shallenberger Construction Inc, a water infrastructure contractor, to build the plant at Masontown in southwest Pennsylvania.

The plant would dump 500,000 gallons (1.9 million litres) of gas drilling waste water a day into the Monongahela River, violating federal clean-water standards, the group said.

The DEP has failed to control many of the chemicals that are used in hydraulic fracturing, a technique widely used to extract gas from deep deposits beneath Pennsylvania and parts of surrounding states, it added.

"Carcinogens like arsenic and benzene are required to be limited in our water to protect our health," said Myron Arnowitt, state director for Clean Water Action. "Yet DEP is not even testing for these dangerous toxins, let alone requiring some kind of treatment."

Clean Water Action, represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, called the agreement a "backroom deal" which was issued without any formal notice in an official state bulletin.

The accusations come in an amended appeal to Pennsylvania's Environmental Hearing Board which hears challenges to DEP decisions.

Teresa Candori, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said the department does not comment on pending litigation. Shallenberger Construction did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Critics say waste water from Marcellus drilling far exceeds the capacity of the state to process it so that it can be safely discharged into waterways.

Energy companies such as Range Resources Corp. (RRC.N) and Atlas America LLC ATLS.O -- both of which are active in southwest Pennsylvania -- decline to specify the chemicals they use in fracking fluid, saying the mixture is proprietary, but contend they operate many safeguards that prevent any escape of the chemicals into water supplies.

The DEP issued 1,500 permits for drilling in the Marcellus from Jan. 1 to Oct. 23 this year, up from 476 for all of 2008 and 93 for the four years from 2003 to 2007, Candori said. (Editing by Daniel Trotta and Marguerita Choy)

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