Group sues to halt waste discharge into Allegheny River

An environmental group has charged in federal court that Waste Treatment Corporation of Warren has illegally discharged wastewater from oil and gas drilling into the Allegheny River.

“We cannot allow our rivers and drinking water supplies to continue to be contaminated,” Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania state director of Clean Water Action, said on Monday.

Clean Water Action, a non-profit group, filed a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania for violations of the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act in July.

“Since we filed our Notice in July, neither Waste Treatment Corporation nor the DEP has taken any satisfactory action to protect the Allegheny River from high levels of gas drilling wastewater,” Arnowitt said in a press release on Monday.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has never authorized Waste Treatment Corporation to discharge gas drilling wastewater into the Allegheny River and is still operating under a permit issued in 2003 that was supposed to renewed in 2008, according to court documents filed by Clean Water Action.

Arnowitt said the permit has been administratively extended for five years and the DEP’s filing of a Praecipe of Writ of Summons with the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania contains no details about the charges and is concerned the DEP is delaying action.

“What they have filed is from our experience a little unusual,” Arnowitt said. “They filed in state court…essentially a one page document that says to the company the state of Pennsylvania is taking legal action against you, and we’ll tell you later what it is. There’s no information” on what the DEP thinks Waste Treatment Corporation has violated “or what they’re prosecuting the company for.”

Matthew Wolford is named as attorney for WTC on the Praecipe of Writ of Summons.

“It is great to finally see DEP take action but they have given neither the courts nor the public any indication of what violations they believe that Waste Treatment Corp. has committed,” Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action, said. “One of the reasons we decided to proceed with our suit is because DEP seems more concerned with negotiating a deal with this company than protecting the public. It is important that WTC stop accepting natural gas drilling wastewater while the legal process unfolds and that any resolution to the situation ensures the protection of the Allegheny River.”

Waste Treatment Corporation is currently operating under an expired, but administratively extended, National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit issued by the DEP in 2003, the CWA complaint says.

CWA says in the complaint that the permit does not allow Waste Treatment Corporation to accept and treat anything other than Subcategory A waste, “…the 2003 permit has never authorized and does not currently authorize the discharge of wastewater derived from oil and gas waste, or Oil & Gas Wastewater.”

“Along with its Application, WTC submitted analyses of the various waste streams it was accepting for treatment. These included data from waste generated from the manufacture of liquid aluminum sulfate and from a petrowax refining facility, but the only other influent data in the application comes from municipal sewage treatment plants. Noticeably absent was any specific information on pollutants attributable to the wastes from oil and gas production,” Clean Water Action said in its intent to file.

“Unless and until this permit is amended, the permittee is only allowed to accept and treat trucked in Subcategory A – Metals wastes, and is prohibited from accepting and treating in waste that fall under Subcategory B – Oils, Subcategory C – Organics, or Subcategory D – Mixed Wastes…” the NPDES permit states.

An October 2012 DEP study determined there were high levels of salts, metals, and radioactive compounds found downstream from Waste Treatment Corporation’s discharge pipe.

“In terms of sediment, the Aquatic Biology Investigation found sediment deposits that were black, oily, and that had a petroleum odor,” the CWA said in the complaint filed Monday. “The Pennsylvania DEP also found in the sediment elevated levels of radionuclides such as radium 226 and radium 228.”

The DEP study states, “Effluent discharged from this facility includes treated industrial waste produced by the oil and gas industry. The WTC NPDES permit has been expired since November 18, 2008.”

“The purpose of this aquatic biological investigation was to examine and determine if the WWTP and WTC discharges are having a negative impact on the Allegheny River. The results of this study suggest the WTC discharge is negatively impacting the macroinvertaberate community of the receiving stream…”

Testing upstream from WTC the study found “an aquatic community typical of the upper Allegheny River” and downstream from WTC’s discharge point found “a greater proportion of pollution-tolerant groups” and the “Differences among sites can be attributed to the WTC discharge, since no other factors were observed between the upstream and downstream stations.”

Arnowitt said CWA is working to determine whether the waste discharged into the Allegheny River is from conventional or unconventional drilling.

Mike Arnold, vice president of WTC, was invited to address Warren City Council on Aug. 26 and denied that the facility accepts wastewater from Marcellus gas well drilling operations.

“They said we are continuing to take Marcellus water,” he said. “We’re not.”

“They track that water so well it’s virtually impossible to lose a gallon of it,” he said. “We don’t accept it.”

“We have a real sensitive radiation detection system,” he said. “We have never had a hit (on incoming water) yet.”

Clean Water Action has alleged that the radium level is “100 times over the limit,” Arnold said.

He said radium could build up in the sediment that the company ships to a landfill, but “when we take our stuff to the landfill, it’s never 100 times over.”

The number of violations quoted by Clean Water Action is artificially high, he said.

Arnold said WTC’s permit allows the company to discharge water that has a pH of between 6 and 9, with 7 being neutral.

If the system detects an improper pH level, it will stop discharging. However, if any water is discharged at that level, the company must report the violation to the state Department of Environment Protection and is issued 30 violations for that month, he said.

“I’m very familiar with DEP,” he said. “If they have a problem, they’re going to come to you. They haven’t approached us” with regard to Clean Water Action’s allegations.

Mike Arnold was not available for comment on Monday.

In its complaint, CWA seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction against WTC operating until “such operation is lawful pursuant to the Clean Water Act, the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law, and the Endangered Species Act”; that WTC must pay for a biological assessment of the affected and potentially affected habitat; that WTC “remediate the damage done to the environment, natural resources, species, and habitat, as a result of its illegal discharges to the Allegheny River; assess civil penalties against WTC at $37,500 per day per violation for violations after January 12, 2009, with violations before January 12, 2009 at $32,500 per day per violation; and award litigation costs, attorney fees and expert fees to CWA.