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Shipment of shale gas waste liquids awaits Coast Guard go-ahead

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The gas drilling industry has made inquiries in West Virginia about shipping waste fluids by barge for disposal, but no shipments can be made until the U.S. Coast Guard decides how to make it safe.

"We don't have any of that happening right now — that requires permitting," said Lieutenant Brian Sadler of the Coast Guard Eighth District's Marine Safety Unit in Huntington. "But I know companies want to do that. We have been contacted and have talked to people who are looking into doing this."

Shale gas drilling companies have to dispose of fluids that are injected into the shale and flow back to the surface. They contain chemicals added to the fluids to make them thicker and slicker, as wells as heavy metals, radioactivity and high concentrations of salts that the fluids pick up underground.

Some flowback is recycled for use in the next well, some is treated, and some is injected in underground disposal wells.

But well drillers don't always have options locally for treatment or disposal and need to ship elsewhere — and shipment by barge is cheaper than by truck.

People have been talking about shipping shale gas waste fluids by barge for a couple years, Sadler said.

But before transportation by barge can be permitted, chemists working with the Coast Guard are helping federal authorities decide whether the briny waste fluids should be classified as a hazardous liquid, he said. Various other federal departments, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Transportation and Energy, have taken an interest as well.

"If they decide it's considered a hazardous liquid, then there are regulatory mechanisms there," Sadler said.

"If you transfer hazardous materials from a barge, there are response plans that have to be developed for clean-up in case there's an accident, and a security plan, and those would have to be done as well for a facility that takes delivery," he said. "And the barges would have to be under some kind of inspection program — so a lot of things are just waiting until that determination gets made."

If flowback is categorized as a hazardous fluid, operators also may be able to choose to dilute it below the threshold concentrations, he said.

"But it's in review and it's so far above the operational level right now, I cannot speak to it in any definitive way," he said.

Tank barge operators Kirby Inland Marine and American Commercial Lines were not able to confirm for The State Journal that they have been contacted by West Virginia oil and gas operators about shipping waste fluids.