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Delaware River Basin Commissionís New Fracking Regulations Mark Incremental Progress

This month, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) finalized regulations banning the discharge of fracking wastewater within the basin. Additional regulations regard the import and export of water for fracking purposes outside of the Delaware watershed.  

DRBC seems to have at last heeded calls from PennFuture and others that final regulations needed to be tightened, closing loopholes that had allowed fracking wastewater and byproducts to potentially harm the basin. 

DRBC’s regulations clearly recognize that fracking wastewater is so toxic that it poses “significant, immediate and long-term risks” to water resources. 

Here’s a rundown on what this all means for the Delaware River Basin’s environment and for the communities that rely upon its water supplies.

Where does fracking stand in the Delaware River Basin?

Fracking is banned! Following on the heels of a decade-long de facto moratorium on fracking and all fracking-related activities, the DRBC banned fracking in the Delaware River Basin in 2021. This ban protects our water resources and our communities from the known dangers from the physical act of fracking!

But what about fracking wastewater? 

Well, that depends. The DRBC’s final regulations prohibiting the “discharge” of fracking wastewater is great news. The final regulations add clarity to the October 2021 draft regulations that ban fracking wastewater and byproducts such as: 

  • Road spreading of fracking wastewater
  • Injection of fracking wastewater into deep well for storage/disposal
  • Disposal of fracking wastewater in landfills
  • Discharge of leachate from landfills that accept fracking waste, including after treatment  

Furthermore, the DRBC clarified that “wastewater” includes wastewater, brine, and sludge that contains fracking contaminates, even if that wastewater was treated. The Commission also made explicit that the discharge ban includes any type of discharge, whether on land or directly into the waters, and whether intentional or unintentional. 

What about risks from transporting fracking wastewater?

The DRBC’s final regulations still allow for the transport, storage, transfer, process, and reuse of fracking wastewater within the basin, which carry with them the possibility of spills and leakage that could irreparably damage the Delaware’s water resources. 

The DRBC anticipates “only low volumes” of fracking wastewater to be transported to or through the Basin, arguing that this reduces the “number of probable spills.” Fracking wastewater is highly toxic. DRBC’s regulations, therefore, do not seem to be stringent enough to protect the heath of our communities or our environment. Despite our knowledge of how harmful this wastewater is, there are still many potentially toxic components which we still don’t know about. 

As a way to alleviate these concerns, the DRBC has argued that there is a “high bar” for approval of any importation of wastewater into the basin. To that end, PennFuture will be diligent in monitoring any applications to the DRBC regarding the importation of fracking wastewater into the basin to ensure that the Commission adheres to its duty to protect the Delaware from harm. 

What about the use of Delaware River Basin water for fracking outside of the basin?

The DRBC refused to ban or limit the use of basin water for fracking activities elsewhere. Instead, the Commission argued that its current regulations of the expiration of water should be stringent enough to protect the watershed from over-extraction of water. 

DRBC has argued that an application for water exportation by a fracking company is highly unlikely to meet the standards and requirements to merit a permit. The Commission’s duty through this review is to ensure, by evaluating a series of factors, that there is “no harm” to the basin’s water resources. 

We are hopeful that the DRBC will adhere strictly to its duty and regulations and reject any water exportation request that does not meet these stringent standards—regardless of whether it’s for fracking or any other activity outside the Basin. 

In conclusion, these final fracking wastewater regulations are very much an improvement over the regulations originally drafted in 2018. PennFuture fully supports the clear prohibition of discharges of fracking wastewater within the Delaware River Basin, as well as DRBC’s efforts to clarify and strengthen that prohibition following recent public comment. 

While we are unhappy that there still remain opportunities for fracking wastewater to be brought into the Basin—and with it the potential to irreparably harm our waters and communities—we are hopeful that the DRBC will do everything in its power to minimize those potential harms.

Photo courtesy Bruce Faling/Flickr

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