Mine water eyed for fracking use

Posted April 25, 2012

By Christie Campbell

Could the gas-extraction industry help solve the problem of mine drainage water in abandoned coal mines?

The possibility of using that water for natural gas drilling is being studied by the gas-extraction industry and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

There is abundant water pooling in abandoned or active mines within Pennsylvania that could be diverted for use in horizontal gas drilling. But a number of logistical and legal challenges would have to be addressed first.

Natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale requires hydraulic fracturing, meaning anywhere from 3 million to 5 million gallons of water is pumped underground to break up the shale and release the gas at each well site.

The idea for using coal mine water, often quite acidic, was part of a recommendation from the Governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission's final report in July. It recommended alternative, non-freshwater sources for gas drilling be encouraged.

In December, the Marcellus Shale Coalition hosted four sessions with members of the DEP, RAND Corp., legal experts and other industry representatives on the possibility of using coal mine water, or CMW. (The DEP refers to CMW as AMD, for abandoned mine drainage.)

The sessions concentrated on the amount of CMW available, how chemical properties might need to be adjusted for use in hydraulic fracturing, the potential costs of using the water and the impact of existing legislation on making use of the water feasible.

Noting the coalition's mission is to promote responsible shale gas development, MSC President Kathryn Klaber said last week the "prospect of using mine water is just one more way that our industry is working to preserve water resources, reduce transportation and logistical burdens, and even more closely connect the economic and environmental benefits of American natural gas development."

Physical scientist Aimee Curtright, who authored a RAND Corp. report following the December sessions, said as the natural gas industry moved from using pure water to recycling its frackwater it began to question the use of available industrial wastewater, too.

"Why foul water when you can use water that's not fit to drink or for fish to swim in? It's a concept that people are really thinking about," she said, although obstacles exist to making the concept viable.

Among them is whether a gas-drilling company, temporarily using CMW, would later be responsible for cleanup of the whole abandoned mine-drainage pool. Such liability issues, said Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources, one of the first gas-extraction companies that explored the use of AMD, is something the state needs to address.

"We'd love to play another role in enhancing Pennsylvania's environment, but it's a matter of liability," he said.

"Pennsylvania's Clean Streams Law often serves to discourage the use of abandoned mine drainage by placing open-ended liability on the user of AMD water," the RAND report reads. Curtright said there was discussion that some of these concerns could fall under the state's Environmental Good Samaritan Act.

According to DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday, there are 86,000 miles of waterways in Pennsylvania, and 5,500 of them are impaired by AMD. There is more AMD than the state has resources to treat, and the DEP is interested in establishing some type of continual treatment at contaminated sites.

The DEP met with watershed and environmental groups and gas industry representatives in January and is expected to issue its final report later this spring.

There are 16 counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania where coal mining and Marcellus Shale gas drilling have occurred. In that same region, there are nearly 1,600 abandoned underground bituminous coal mines. Some of the smallest were mined before 1900.

The coal mine water is typically acidic and includes total dissolved solids, iron, aluminum, sulfates, manganese and barium. The pH levels range from 2.7 to 7.3 in these pools. Many gas wells are located near or above underground mines in Greene, Washington and Fayette counties.

But challenges include the fact that some water will not be appropriate for drilling or hydraulic stimulations, and water withdrawal from underground mines could damage the mine structure. In addition to often-complicated legal issues involving ownership of abandoned mines, treating mine water produces solid waste and potential disposal issues.

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