Aerial view of a wastewater treatment plant. Municipal wastewater plants in North Carolina cannot treat fracking wastewater. Image courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection agency

As regulators create rules that will cover fracking in North Carolina, one major question looms: What will happen with the water?

By Gabe Rivin

North Carolina’s gas-drilling regulators have tentatively approved the last rules on their to-do list, including a contentious rule that governs wastewater from hydraulic fracturing.

The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, the group tasked to develop fracking regulations, moved at an unusually quick pace at an eight-hour April 16 meeting, owing to its October deadline to finish all of its work. With the deadline looming, the commission debated and tentatively approved eight sets of rules, covering a wide variety of topics, including financial bonds and hydraulic fracturing itself.

In the past, the group tended to work only on two sets of rules per meeting, which often lasted about five and a half hours. But because of the MEC’s hasty work, the state will remain on track to issue its first drilling permits next year.

Water storage tanks at a natural-gas well in Arkansas. Fracturing a well can require up to five million gallons of water. These tanks store water used for the fracturing. Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey

Yet, as the state inches closer to its own gas industry, energy developers and environment officials will have to deal with a knotty problem: what to do with the wastewater generated by hydraulic fracturing.

It’s a problem, some say, with few good solutions.

Millions of gallons to dispose

Hydraulic fracturing is a water-intensive process. At each well, drillers pump into the ground between three million and five million gallons of water. This water is laced with sand and chemicals and is pumped at high pressures, which frees gas and oil from dense shale formations.

But up to 35 percent of fracking water – or about 1.75 million gallons at the higher range – can return to the surface, according to a study by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

That “flowback” wastewater contains fracking fluids, including regulated and unregulated chemicals. It also can contain high levels of radioactive elements, such as uranium and thorium, according to the DENR study.

The MEC’s rules give drillers four options to dispose of this wastewater. Drillers can reuse the water in other wells; they can treat it onsite; they can send it to a specialized wastewater-treatment plant; or they can send it to another state’s treatment plant. Unlike in other states, North Carolina drillers will not be allowed to inject their wastes underground.

Vikram Rao, a member of the MEC, and the chair of the committee that developed the wastewater rules. Image courtesy Research Triangle Energy Consortium

Reusing the water at other wells is economical, according to Vikram Rao, a member of the MEC and the chair of the committee that developed the rules.

“As long as there is an ongoing operation, there’s no reason not to keep on reusing [the water],” he said.

Yet drillers eventually have to dispose of the wastewater. And that’s when the options become much more limited.

According to Rao, North Carolina currently does not have any wastewater-treatment plants that are equipped – or permitted – to handle fracking wastewater. That means drillers will probably choose to treat their wastewater onsite in order to remove radioactive elements and other problematic chemicals, he said.

“That’s happening today,” Rao said. “It’s technically feasible.”

Next, drillers will release the treated water into state waterways, like rivers, or send the water to municipal treatment plants.

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Breaking down the waste-management rule

  • The MEC’s waste-management rule governs the disposal of fracking wastewater, but it sets a number of other requirements for drilling wastes too. Here’s a section-by-section synopsis of the major sections of the rule set.
  • Waste-management plan. Drillers have to describe how they’ll manage and dispose of their wastes, which include fluids and drilling muds. They will submit this plan to DENR.
  • Waste disposal. This section contains the requirements for wastewater disposal and sampling. It also sets standards for the disposal of sludge residuals from wastewater. Developers can transport solid and fluid wastes offsite and dispose the wastes in permitted facilities.
  • Closing the earthen pit. Earthen pits temporarily hold fracking wastes. (These pits are lined with impermeable synthetic materials.) After removing the wastes, developers must test for and remove any contaminated soil. Then they must fill the pit and return it to a natural state.
  • Spills. Drillers must contain and clean up any spills of drilling wastes. They must report to DENR’s director any spills that could threaten public health or state waters; they must do so within 24 hours. They must notify affected drinking-water plants within two hours.
  • Monitoring. Drillers are responsible for monitoring their waste and reporting annually to DENR how much waste they’ve produced.


Limits to onsite treatment

Yet this onsite process could be a problem, according to Grady McCallie, policy director at the N.C. Conservation Network.

“There are no treatment systems in wide use in other states that bring water to an acceptable quality for surface discharge,” he wrote in an email interview.

McCallie also questioned whether advanced onsite treatment systems would be economical for drillers.

Such onsite treatment is technologically possible, he said, “but I’m not aware of a place where that is being done, and I think it would be energy intensive and relatively expensive, making it unlikely for what is already a marginal [shale] play.”

Rao, however, said that a system used in Arkansas appears to be cost-effective, and could serve as a model for North Carolina drillers.

Aerial view of a wastewater treatment plant. Municipal wastewater plants in North Carolina cannot treat fracking wastewater. Image courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection agency

State monitoring could be limited

Whether or not these systems are cost-effective, the state may struggle to monitor the quality of treated water, according to Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina.

“The amount of additional oversight that would be required for such a facility would be something I don’t think that DENR is prepared to take on,” she said. “I’m very concerned about the accountability for such a facility.”

That’s compounded by the potential for limited wastewater sampling, Taylor said.

The MEC’s rules require drillers to test their wastewater for a number of metals, chemicals and radioactive elements. But the rule also allows DENR’s directors to set the schedule for sampling, which could leave the state with limited information about fracking wastewater, according to Taylor.

“Unless that frequency is pretty high, there’s not going to be much accountability for doing that testing,” she said.

The MEC is not finished evaluating its rules. The rules they have approved will now return to DENR staff, who will make technical corrections. The MEC will also hold three public hearings on the rules in August.

The commission will respond to public comments, potentially change the rules and vote to approve the final bundle of rules. The General Assembly must vote to adopt these rules before the state can begin to issue permits. The earliest legislators could vote on the final rules would be in their January 2015 session.

An impoundment at a drilling site in West Texas. This pit stores “produced” water, underground water that rises to the surface after fracking is complete. Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey


Clarification: The story noted that drillers my choose to release treated wastewater into state waterways. In order to do so, they will have to receive state permits.

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Gabe Rivin

Gabe is our former environmental health reporter from 2014-2016. He is a former editor of The Cooperative Business Journal, and a former reporter for Inside Washington Publishers, where he covered federal...

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