Where Does the Waste From PA’s Marcellus Wells Go?

A new dataset has been added to FracTracker’s DataTool which aggregates the waste produced by Marcellus Shale wells in Pennsylvania in the last half of 2011 by the facilities that receive them. And while all of this waste was produced within the Commonwealth, the waste products are disposed of over a wide geographical area, spanning six states:

Note: Due to a change in FracTracker’s mapping utility, data from the last half of 2011 has been replaced by data from the first half of 2013 in the map above.  Please press the expanding arrows icon in the top-right corner of the map to access full controls.

One can only guess at the business decisions involved with the shipping of large quantities of waste from Pennsylvania to eastern New Jersey or southern West Virginia. In other shale plays, the majority of waste is disposed of through deep well injections nearby, but it has long been known that Pennsylvania’s geology is unsuitable for these wells (see page 67 of this 2009 report, for example). And the 4.0 New Year’s Eve temblor near caused by waste fluid injection near Youngstown, Ohio has residents and officials in the Buckeye State thinking much the same.

State receiving Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale waste produced from July to December 2011

In the chart above, solid waste is measured in tons while liquid waste is measured in barrels. In terms of solid waste, the majority–218,000 tons–is actually shipped out of state.  On the other hand, most of the liquid waste is dealt with in Pennsylvania (15.1 million barrels), but the 1.7 million barrels sent to Ohio is certainly significant. The 3.5 million barrels sent to an “unspecified location” is actually good news: the vast majority of that is recycled for use in subsequent wells. Not only does this give operators something constructive to do with the waste they produce, it also helps preserve fresh water resources in the region by offsetting water withdrawals.   Here is the same data arranged to show the various methods of disposal:

PA Marcellus Shale waste disposal by method, July-December 2011

While the recycling efforts are starting to make a dent in the overall picture of how Pennsylvania handles its Marcellus Shale waste fluids, it still far from being the primary means of disposal. In fact, two thirds of the liquid waste produced is still being treated at brine and industrial waste facilities, which have a questionable ability to remove total dissolved solids, heavy metals, and other contaminants from waste water, which ultimately works its way back into Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams.