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Hazardous fracking waste: Activists alarm at proposal to move it by river

Published time: December 16, 2013 12:13
Anti-fracking and Keystone XL pipeline activists demonstrate in lower Manhattan on September 21, 2013 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

Anti-fracking and Keystone XL pipeline activists demonstrate in lower Manhattan on September 21, 2013 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

The US Coast Guard is looking into the possibility of allowing fracking waste to be barged along American rivers. The shipping industry has embraced the initiative, while the general public is alarmed by the risks of contaminated drinking water.

The US Coast Guard’s draft policy, posted for public comment at Regulations.gov, says that while currently shale gas extraction waste water (SGEWW) is being transported by trucks or trains, there is also commercial interest in it being barged “from northern Appalachia via inland waterways to storage or reprocessing centers and final disposal sites in Ohio, Texas, and Louisiana.” That means the waste could be shipped on major rivers such as the Ohio and the Mississippi.

The barge-shipping proponents emphasize that the practice is safer than transportation by truck and rail, allows for larger quantities of waste to be moved, and creates jobs in the industry. The opponents of the Coast Guard’s proposal cite environmental risks in case of an accident, including the threat to millions of people of losing access to drinking water.

Regulations.gov currently features over 1,000 comments to the Coast Guard’s proposal, but these appear to be only the ones processed so far. The total number, submitted by environmental activists could be as high as 60,000, according to Environment America.

Those endorsing the initiative come mainly from the representatives of the barge shipping industry, like the American Waterways Operators (AWO), who insist that barge shipments are the safest way to carry hazardous materials.

"AWO strongly supports the carriage of SGEWW by barge and believes that such transportation offers significant environmental advantages given the tugboat, towboat and barge industry's strong record of transporting hazardous or potentially hazardous materials safely," the group’s Senior Vice President, Jennifer Carpenter, said in an official statement.

Reuters/Zoran Milich

The US Army Corps of Engineers’ statistics, cited by AP, confirms the argument, saying that in 2010 US barges carried 2,000 tons of radioactive waste, almost 1.6 million tons of sulfuric acid and 315 million tons of petroleum products. Barge transportation entails less risk of accident than truck or rail transport, according to a 2011 report by the US Government Accountability Office.

Another argument, put forward by those in favor of transporting wastewater from fracking by barge, is that it can provide vital support for the regional economy.

According to an economic impact study done by Martin Associates, the river transportation system supports over 45,000 direct jobs in the 12-county Port of Pittsburgh district,” says James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburg Commission in a statement, supporting the Coast Guard proposal.

However, most of the comments posted are from individuals objecting not only to the barge shipment of wastewater, but fracking in general.

I have seen the harm that fracking does to the environment and I vehemently oppose the process, and I certainly do not want our rivers to be exposed to this toxicity,” one such comment reads.

The controversial fracking technology involves injecting chemical-laden water deep into the ground, exploding it and then pumping it back, together with the gas released as a result of the blast. The water is then separated from the gas and has to be disposed of. Waste from the water could contain toxic and radioactive materials.

A US advocacy group, Environment America, has collected more than 29,000 opinions online against shipments of fracking waste on rivers.

Accidents and spills do happen. Just last week, a boat carrying 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel and oil sank in the Mississippi River," said Courtney Abrams, Clean Water Program Director for Environment America in the group’s official statement released on December 6. “An accident or spill of fracking wastewater on one of our major rivers would be devastating to drinking water and the area’s aquatic life.”

Environmentalists believe the Coast Guard’s proposal puts the drinking water of millions of people at risk.
The Coast Guard promises intense scrutiny of the cargo before shipping. The results of the analyses are to be kept for two years. Barge operators are also required to make sure that workers are not exposed to the radioactive radon gas, which the waste might contain and which can cause lung cancer.

The Coast Guard is now evaluating feedback received from both the proponents and the opponents of the move and will eventually either approve or modify the proposal. There is no deadline for a decision, according to spokesman, Carlos Diaz, cited by AP.

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