A federal judge has sentenced the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to probation, ordered it to pay a $500,000 judgment and to start an environmental compliance program the authority violated the Clean Water Act by discharging sludge into the Allegheny River.
Groups have concerns about radioactivity in shale gas drilling wastewater leading to contamination drinking water supply in Pittsburgh.
The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority pleaded guilty Tuesday to Clean Water Act violations in connection with an investigation of sludge discharge into the Allegheny River.
Sludge collected during the drinking water purification process at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority's Aspinwall treatment plant was intentionally and illegally discharged into the Allegheny River for seven years, according to a plea agreement.
Volunteers collected 11,300 pounds of trash from the Allegheny River and its shorelines during 16 cleanups held in June from Millvale to Freeport, according to the nonprofit Allegheny CleanWays.
Fracking chemicals dumped in the Allegheny River a decade ago are still showing up in mussels: Study
Chemicals from fracking wastewater dumped into Pennsylvania's Allegheny River before 2011 are still accumulating in the bodies of freshwater mussels downstream, according to a new study.
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University found elevated concentrations of Strontium in the shells of freshwater mussels downstream from a former fracking wastewater disposal site in Warren, Pennsylvania, about 143 miles northeast (and upstream) of Pittsburgh.
While the potential health impacts on humans from this contamination are unclear, high levels of exposure to non-radioactive Strontium can disrupt bone growth in children.
"Mussels record the changes in water quality that they see over their lifetimes in the layers of their hard shells," Nathaniel Warner, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Pennsylvania State University who co-authored the study, told EHN. "We can go back about 10 years and see the spikes that indicate when wastewater from Marcellus shale was being treated and discharged into the Allegheny River."
The study, published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology, is among the first to show bioaccumulation—the buildup of chemicals in the bodies of living creatures—from oil and gas wastewater downstream of a surface water disposal facility.
"We don't know how much of an impact this has on human health, or if it has any impact at all," Warner said, "but this means it's entering the food chain." He noted that they'd like to look at the soft tissue of the mussels next, since muskrats and fish dine on freshwater mussels, but "no animals really eat the shells."
Warner and his co-authors compared the shells of mussels from the Allegheny River that were collected both upstream and downstream of a former disposal site for fracking wastewater in Warren, Pennsylvania. They also looked at mussels from two other Pennsylvania rivers—the Juniata and the Delaware—that have no reported discharge from the oil and gas industry.
The mussels collected downstream of the discharge facility contained significantly greater concentrations of Strontium than the mussels upstream, or the mussels collected from the Juniata and Delaware Rivers.
Between 2008 and 2011, more than 2.9 billion liters of oil and gas wastewater was discharged to waterways after being treated at municipal sewage facilities throughout the country. The practice was common in Pennsylvania until it was halted in 2011 after it was discovered that the small amounts of heavy metals and radioactive materials they released into the water supply were building up in sediment and drinking water. But the new research suggests the impact of the practice is ongoing.
Another recent study found elevated levels of radioactive radium in the sediment downstream of the former treatment facilities in Pennsylvania.
"I expected that we would see a big, dramatic change after 2011 when there was no more unconventional oil and gas wastewater going into that facility," Warner said. "Instead, we saw a slow, gradual change, and the shells from the mussels downstream still haven't gone back to looking like an upstream shell that wasn't impacted."
"We think the sediment acts like a reservoir for higher levels of radioactivity and metals, and that's where the mussels live," he added, "so this could continue to have even longer-term impacts even though that valve got turned off."
Warner said the findings are also relevant for preserving biodiversity. "Freshwater mussels are currently undergoing a mass extinction event," he said, "and that's likely because of changes we're causing in water quality."
At least 35 of 297 species of America's freshwater mussels have gone extinct since 1900. The Allegheny River is home to 49 species of freshwater mussel, many of which are endangered.
Previous research has shown that the population density, diversity, and mortality of mussels in the Allegheny River were all negatively affected downstream of the Warren wastewater treatment site. A 2015 study found that survival rates for mussels within half a kilometer (.31 miles) downstream of the Warren discharge site were between 20 and 50 percent in the year after the practice was stopped, compared with a survival rate between 80 and 100 percent two kilometers (1.24 miles) downstream of the site.
Warner also noted that despite having a similar, if less-concentrated chemical makeup, wastewater from conventional oil and gas facilities is still regularly treated at municipal sewage plants and discharged into rivers.
"We can see the specific signature that comes from Marcellus shale in the shells, but there's still radioactivity and extremely high levels of salt in the wastewater that's coming from conventional oil and gas facilities," Warner said.
"Looking at what happens with disposal of wastewater from conventional oil and gas is just as important as fracking, at least when it comes to freshwater mussels—they don't know the difference."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mis-characterized the Strontium found by researchers as radioactive. The Strontium looked at for the study was not radioactive Strontium-90; it was Strontium-87 and Strontium-86, neither of which are radioactive.
The Seneca Nation of Indians have declared victory after a proposed project to treat fracking wastewater at the headwaters of the Allegheny River was nixed by the local water authority. EHN previously reported on the widespread opposition to the project.
On Monday night, the Coudersport Area Municipal Authority voted unanimously to terminate its relationship with Pittsburgh-based startup Epiphany Water Solutions, LLC. Epiphany's proposed facility would have treated up to 42,000 gallons of fracking wastewater per day, which the municipal authority had previously agreed to discharge into the Allegheny River through their sewage treatment plant.
Members of the Seneca Nation of Indians who attended the meeting cheered after the vote.
"Instead of feeling tears of frustration, I'm here with tears of joy," one member of the Seneca Nation can be seen telling board members of the municipal authority following the vote in a YouTube video posted by the Seneca Nation (below). "I'm 70. I'm a mother. I care for the future of our generations... You all did a great thing today."
Opponents of a fracking wastewater treatment plant, which is now without a home and a client, cheered Monday night as the project appeared dead.
Last month more than 100 Seneca Nation tribal members showed up at the monthly meeting of the local municipal authority in the small town of Coudersport, Pennsylvania, carrying protest signs and ceremonial drums.
They couldn't all fit inside the sewer plant building, so many stood outside, where they sang and chanted in the Seneca language. Their signs bore messages like, "Water is sacred," and "Keep your fracking in Pennsylvania."
They were protesting a proposed fracking wastewater treatment plant adjacent to the Coudersport Area Municipal Authority's sewage treatment facility. If approved, the facility would take up to 42,000 gallons of fracking wastewater per day from Marcellus shale gas drillers to be treated and discharged into the Allegheny River—which flows from Coudersport in north central Pennsylvania's Potter County up into Western New York and through the Seneca Nation's territory.
No one consulted tribal members about the plan. They read about it in the news.
"Our name for the Allegheny is Ohi'yo, which means 'beautiful water,'" said Seneca Nation president Todd Gates. "We're determined to keep it that way. We can't do anything without water. It's the basis of all life. It's a sacred resource."
After flowing from Coudersport into New York and through the Seneca Nation's land, the river turns back into Pennsylvania and meanders down into Pittsburgh, where it converges with the Monongahela River to form the Ohio River.
In other words, every community on the Allegheny River between New York and Pittsburgh is downstream of the proposed wastewater treatment plant.
"It's not a question of would something go wrong," John Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, said. "The question is if there are still even small amounts of dangerous constituents in the discharge, especially radioactive ones, then there's the possibility of buildup in the river over time."
Stolz's background is in microbiology, but since 2009, his work has focused on water quality issues associated with unconventional shale gas extraction. In January, Stolz submitted a comment to the DEP urging them to reject Epiphany's permit application.
Stolz pointed to a 2013 study that found radium from fracking wastewater had made its way into a watershed that supplies Pittsburgh's drinking water. The wastewater came from a sewage treatment facility on Blacklick Creek in Indiana County, Pennsylvania.
The facility claimed to remove 90 percent of the radium in the wastewater (Epiphany promises to remove 100 percent), but the cumulative impact resulted in radium at concentrations roughly 200 times higher than background levels detected in sediment.
"We're still feeling the effects of that now," said Stolz, who works with a consortium that regularly monitors the water quality of Pittsburgh's three rivers. "The human health impact of this stuff is going to show up maybe 20-30 years down the road, and at that point it will be very difficult to connect it back to what's happening in the industry currently."
"On the other hand," he added, "it doesn't hurt anything to be careful."
A legacy of mistrust and a small startup
This isn't the first time the Seneca Nation's resources have been threatened.
"We seem to be always reacting to forces beyond our control outside our borders," Gates said, noting that in 1965, the federal government flooded 10,000 acres of Seneca Nation Land to create the Kinzua Dam, displacing more than 600 tribal members. The land-grab desecrated the Seneca Nation's ceremonial burial grounds and violated the Canandaigua Treaty, which had been signed by President George Washington.
"It was an affront to our culture," Gates said, "and it lends itself to a distrust of companies and government agencies that try to come tell us what we need to do to get along."
The company proposing the fracking wastewater plant is a small, Pittsburgh-based startup called Epiphany Water Solutions, LLC. The company, which has 12 employees, operates from a former warehouse on a residential street in Pittsburgh's trendy Lawrenceville neighborhood.
This project would be Epiphany's first commercial fracking wastewater treatment plant. In January, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) rejected their initial permit application due to technical deficiencies, requesting clarification on the water quality monitoring, among other items. Epiphany has since submitted an updated permit application that's still under review.
Founded in 2009, one of the company's initial projects involved harnessing solar power to remove the salt from seawater to make it drinkable. They soon realized they could apply the same technology to fracking wastewater, which contains about seven times the amount of salt as seawater, and in 2012 they secured $500,000 in funding from Consol Energy to fund a fracking wastewater cleaning pilot project.
"Our original and ongoing mission as a business is to provide clean drinking water for people all over the world," Epiphany co-founder and chief technology officer Tom Joseph said. "We're doing this not because we have deep-seated love for the oil and gas industry, but because we care for our world and the environment."
The company is no stranger to unconventional projects. In 2013, Epiphany also launched a Kickstarter to raise funds for a heat-powered, phone charging coffee coaster. The project was fully funded through donations from people who wanted the product, but it ultimately fell apart due to logistical challenges and Epiphany never delivered any of the coasters or issued refunds to most backers (despite promises to do so).
Joseph said they've issued refunds to "several backers who requested them," and are still working on the rest due to issues with Kickstarter's payment system.
What’s in the water?
In addition to salt, untreated fracking wastewater in Pennsylvania often contains heavy metals and radioactive elements like strontium and radium. Those compounds are associated with myriad risks to human health, including cancer and birth defects. Untreated frack wastewater spills have also been linked to fish kills.
The stretch of river near the proposed plant is home to at least 38 species of fish, two of which—the Bigmouth Shiner and the Burbot— are protected as threatened, according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
Prior to 2011, it was common for fracking wastewater to be processed through municipal sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania. The practice was halted after it was discovered that the small amounts of heavy metals and radioactive materials they released into the water supply were building up in sediment and drinking water.
The DEP is considering the plan at Coudersport because Epiphany claims their pre-treatment process makes the wastewater "cleaner than rain" before it's sent to the municipal sewage treatment plant.
A representative from the DEP said via email that federal and state regulations allow fracking wastewater to be discharged through a municipal sewage treatment plant if it's pre-treated according to their standards first, which is what Epiphany is proposing.
Epiphany uses a process called mechanical vapor recompression distiller evaporation, which works like the natural water cycle. The water is heated and the steam is captured, while the solids stay behind. The technology itself isn't new—in fact, according to the DEP, there's at least one other company using similar (though not identical) technology to treat fracking wastewater already operational in the state.
Eureka Resources has two locations in north central Pennsylvania: Their Williamsport facility discharges pre-treated fracking wastewater to the Williamsport Sanitary Authority, which then processes back into the public water supply, and the facility at Standing Stone discharges directly to the Susquehanna River.
Both plants have a mostly clean track record so far, but public records show at least one 2018 violation of the effluent limits for hazardous materials laid out in the permit for the Standing Stone location.
What's different about Epiphany's proposal is the size of their water treatment technology, which is significantly smaller than Eureka's.
"Henry Ford didn't invent automobiles; he just figured out how to mass produce them," Joseph said. "We've done that with distillation technology. We didn't invent it, but what we're proud of is that we miniaturized it so we can mass produce it at about 10 percent of cost anyone else can do it at."
Currently, most wastewater from shale drilling operations in the region is sent to recycling facilities, where it's processed for reuse in fracking. The remaining waste, which contains the most dangerous elements, is often trucked to Ohio to be deposited in injection wells deep in the Earth, a practice that's been associated with leaks and earthquakes.
Joseph said Epiphany aims to provide a more environmentally sustainable solution. If this project gets off the ground, he hopes to set up similar operations in 30 more locations in the region. Epiphany and the Seneca Nation have plans to meet so the Nation's scientists and consultants can review the technology. Gates said they're eager to hear what the company has to say, but they remain wary.
"If they can clean the fracking wastewater to the point where they'll stand in front of us and take the first drink of it," Gates said, "we'll listen."
According to Joseph, their staff members actually do drink the water they treat—regularly.
"We literally, not kidding, drink the water out of our distillation units anytime we're working in the field," Joseph said.
Every community on the Allegheny River between New York and Pittsburgh is downstream of the proposed wastewater treatment plant. (Credit: jpellgen/flickr)
The Seneca Nation has other concerns, too—about how the buildup of heavy metals and radioactive materials removed through the distillation process will be stored and disposed of, and about the site being on a 100-year floodplain, to name a few.
And the Seneca Nation isn't the only group skeptical about the plan.
The DEP received more than 3,000 public comments about the project during a 30-day period.
Pittsburgh representatives of the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the American Indian Law Alliance and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation all sent letters expressing concern about Epiphany's permit application.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers questioned Epiphany's water quality monitoring system and about the site being on a 100-year floodplain, noting that "in the event of a flood or spill resulting in the loss of the stored material into the Allegheny River, the risk to water resources is high."
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation also urged the DEP to require more stringent water quality monitoring than was proposed in Epiphany's permit application, suggesting that even if the water was tested after leaving Epiphany, it should be re-tested for radioactive elements, heavy metals, and total dissolved solids right before entering the Allegheny River to "provide assurance to downstream communities."
The Coudersport Borough Council, a Senator from New York, at least one physician, and the government of Cattaraugus County, which neighbors the Seneca Nation in New York, have stated their opposition to Epiphany's project, and a community activist group called Save the Allegheny has raised the alarm that the proposed plant is less than a mile from the local elementary school.
"When we learned about the proposal, our first concern was 'oh my god, look how close this is to the school,'" Laurie Barr, a Potter County resident and the founder of Save the Allegheny, said.
Barr points to Epiphany's failed phone charger Kickstarter as evidence that the company has a track record of poor communication and breaches of trust with stakeholders.
"If this project goes badly, Epiphany can just pack up shop and go open some other business in another name," Barr said. "Coudersport can't do that."
Joseph accused Barr and her group of intentionally spreading false information as a fear tactic.
"We've been in touch with [Save the Allegheny] from the beginning," Joseph said. "And what you have to know is that these are not good people. These are anti-fracking fanatics. They don't care about the community. They don't care about the environment."
Joseph also said the Seneca Nation is only concerned about the plant because they've received false information from members of Save the Allegheny. He said the Seneca Nation recently pushed back their scheduled meeting with Epiphany.
"They continue to make incorrect statements about Epiphany's facility and have not yet given us the opportunity to provide them with the facts and scientific data that would eliminate their concerns," he said.
Since we spoke with Joseph, a law firm representing Epiphany has sent cease and desist letters to the Seneca Nation and a pair of investigative journalists at the Public Herald who've written about the proposed treatment plant.
A promise to protect
There's no deadline for the DEP's application review process, so it's unclear when Epiphany will know whether they're moving forward with the project or not.
As for the Seneca Nation, they're eager to meet with Epiphany and learn more—but they won't be swayed easily.
"We're trying to make sure everybody has the facts to make the best decision," Gates said. "But no matter what, we will not compromise in our promise to protect our resources."
The manufacturing plant responsible for PFAS-coated fast food packaging pumps out loads of a banned ozone-depleting compound along with "forever chemicals."
"We already know enough about the harm being caused by these very persistent substances to take action to stop all non-essential uses and to limit exposure from legacy contamination."
Pennsylvania vows to regulate PFAS in drinking water—again—but regulations are at least two years away
The chemicals, linked to health problems including cancer and thyroid disease, have contaminated drinking water in Pittsburgh communities like Coraopolis and McKeesport.