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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Does shale gas development impact PA rivers and streams? Study says yes.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Resources for the Future has found that shale gas development can adversely affect surface water quality by increasing the downstream concentrations of two pollutants - chloride and total suspended solids (TSS). 

Shale gas development impacts on surface water quality in Pennsylvania used over 20,000 surface water quality observations taken over 11 years in Pennsylvania and found:

  • The treatment and release of shale gas wastewater by treatment plants raised downstream chloride concentrations in surface water;
  • The presence of well pads upstream raised the concentration of TSS; and
  • No systematic statistical evidence of spills or leaks of flowback and produced water from shale gas wells into waterways.

In 2011 Pennsylvania placed a voluntary ban on the shipment of shale gas waste to municipal sewage treatment plants and some industrial wastewater treatment plants. RFF says that this “partially” addresses the chloride concentrations impacts estimated by their study. However, the “finding of measurable downstream impacts on TSS from shale gas infrastructure in only these first years of burgeoning shale gas development in Pennsylvania suggests that land management issues may be important as well.”

Clearly, shale gas development presents risks to rivers and streams, which can be avoided or minimized with strong regulations - including robust erosion and sedimentation measures - and industry embrace of best practices. It is essential that regulators and industry respond to the data presented by RFF.


  1. The request industry to cease deliveries of shale gas wastewater to publicly-owned treatment works (sewage plants) has not been entirely successful. Perhaps that should be expected. In fact, DEP has approved changes to at least one sewage plant permit to allow the plant to accept shale gas wastewater. The voluntary cessation request also did not reach centralized wastewater treatment plants that, according to monthly electronic reports, continue to discharge wastewater with extraordinarily high levels of chloride. Thus, discharges continue to be a water quality problem. Here, it's not additional regulations that are needed. Instead, it's proper permitting and enforcement that is needed.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting. State data on this "request" has been, at best, opaque. The concern is usually dismissed by repeating the fact that the request was made. Where is the data on compliance? And why not back up the request in regulation with a ban? Agree with your assessment.