McELHATTAN - Wayne Township residents received their clearest picture yet of a plan to locate a gas well drilling wastewater treatment plant in their community. Which is not to say the picture is entirely clear.
Representatives for Rex Energy and its wholly owned subsidiary, Central Pennsylvania Water Treatment LLC, (CPWT) offered local people an overview of its plans at a citizens' meeting on Monday evening sponsored by Wayne Township Residents Against Pollution (WRAP), a group opposing the plant.
Many residents left the meeting surprised that the focus of the company had changed: Officials announced they are no longer interested in locating in the agricultural district and floodplain along the Susquehanna River as they had originally planned.
JIM RUNKLE/THE EXPRESS
Roxanne Embick speaks at the WRAP meeting Monday night while geologist Ned Wehler looks on.
The company is now looking at entering into an agreement with the Clinton County Solid Waste Authority to use the landfill's mothballed treatment facility and property.
Of the 40 or so citizens who attended the session, many appeared willing to listen to what the company had to say ... and just as many appeared willing to tell it where to go.
The large majority, however, appeared frustrated by a continuing lack of specifics even while plans appear to be evolving in a new direction.
Company officials Melissa Hamsher, Kim Nelson and Ned Wehler offered an overview of their plans, then fielded questions from the crowd.
Some of those questions were angry, and the fact that the landfill has become a new part of the puzzle added to the acrimony. Some township residents have long complained that the landfill operation had been pushed down their throats against their desires, and that promises of a pristine, environmentally safe and relatively uniform aftermath had been replaced by "70-foot high hills."
"We chose this option because of your concerns," Hamsher told the crowd. "Our original plans were for the agricultural district and in the floodplain.
"The company wants to engage Wayne Township Landfill's existing facilities for the treatment," Wehler said, noting landfill officials have been presented with a proposal, but no final decision has been made.
Wehler, who did most of the talking for the business, said the company has requested an NPDES industrial wastewater permit for Wayne Township. The application from Central PA Water Treatment seeks to build a facility that would treat up to 504,000 gallons per day of wastewater from gas well drilling and discharge it into the river.
The plant would treat "frac" water generated by natural gas well drilling, now being pursued due to the discovery of natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale, an energy-rich layer of rock deep beneath the surface of this region.
The industry uses and disposes of the massive amounts of water it needs to free gas trapped in the shale. The process, called "hydro-fracturing" or "fracing," involves pumping millions of gallons of pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals into the ground to pulverize the shale and release the gas trapped within it.
The water that returns to the surface is contaminated by salt and very low-level, naturally occurring radioactive material, which must be cleaned out. The process will require a high level of truck traffic to transport the contaminated water to the plant and the resulting by-product sludge material off site.
WRAP representatives Roxanne Embick and Kathy Dershem characterized the meeting as an "informative gathering," although neither backed off from their stand that the plant is unwanted and shouldn't be permitted in the township.
"I don't want it here," Dershem said. She noted new regulations governing septic system inspections and the planting of trees in floodplains suggested that the environment remains a high concern with government, and wondered aloud how this proposal fits with that philosophy.
"This is a county property," Wehler said. "It will be locally supervised and have the ability to monitor and assure for yourself that it's being done properly ... That's a plus."
Landfill Manager Jay Alexander described the plan as very tentative when called this morning for comment.
"It's very early on in the process," he said, "but we are trying to evaluate if we can use our mothballed treatment plant to deal with frac water ... We have to answer a lot of questions right now before we can even say it's a possibility. We are just evaluating the idea as a concept, and we're not putting a lot of energy into it. If it doesn't make sense, we won't pursue it."
The supervisors, in the meantime, are considering allowing such a treatment facility as a "conditional use" in light industrial zones. Any proposal, even if it meets all other state requirements, would have to go before the supervisors for their vote in connection with whether it meets all zoning requirements. The supervisors say the regulations are needed to control a business that will almost certainly look at Wayne as a potential location for a plant.
WRAP officials have countered with a proposed ordinance that would effectively prohibit these enterprises throughout the township.
Township solicitor Paul Welch Jr. says approving the latter would open the township to legal challenges.
A final vote is expected after the supervisors hold a special meeting at 6 p.m. July 20 to hear public input on the proposed ordinance.
Many of the citizens' concerns and questions focused on the water that returns to the surface after the fracturing process. They also worried about the high level of truck traffic to transport the contaminated water to the plant and the resulting by-product sludge material off site.
Added to those concerns is the possibility that the company and waste authority might pursue a permitting process to allow the landfill to accept the sludge material "along with the trash from New Jersey."
Wehler emphasized that Rex and CPWT are both local concerns. Rex, he said, has headquarters in State College and its board is made up of all Penn State University graduates. He promised as citizens of Central Pennsylvania, the owners would be good neighbors and reasonable stewards of the environment, and that they would take the township's concerns seriously in moving ahead with their plans.
"We are against pollution," he said. "Everything we do is a way of controlling or eliminating pollution ... We are totally committed to doing the right thing."
Wehler explained that the process of fracturing involves forcing water under pressure to a depth of 6,000 to 7,500 feet to break up the shale and release the natural resources, and that about 20 to 50 percent of the water returns to the surface over a period of 20 to 30 days, with the largest portion of water arriving in the first couple of days. Given the dry nature of the shale, he said, some of the water remains underground.
The company expects to receive water from a 50 to 100 mile radius from the site, he said. Questions about whether the distances might change with the company's fortunes were not answered directly, although Wehler said the farther the company has to bring in water, the higher the costs would be.
The landfill's plant would be set up to accept 40,000 gallons per day initially, he said, and over a process of a year or more, the company would upgrade the facility to accept the maximum allowed under the Department of Environmental Protection's permitting process. He said CPWT would like to be up and operating this year, and DEP's approval of its permit could occur "within a month or two."
He said the company has been involved in the application process since May of last year. The facility would process the water in an enclosed space and the water storage area will be double-lined to increase safety.
"In order to support the economic vitality that will come to this region ... There needs to be a (facility) that can take care of the waste materials and treat them appropriately to remove pollutants," Wehler said.
Wehler described the DEP permitting process as an extensive examination into the characteristics of the West Branch and its ability to handle both the drawing process and the return of water to the stream. He said in this case, DEP determined the "assimilative capacity" and slashed that amount in half, which is to be allocated among seven permit applications, "of which ours is one."
As for truck traffic, Wehler noted that, with an anticipated 400,000 gallons per day in deliveries, and 5,000 gallons per truck load, some 70 trucks could be expected to arrive at the facility daily. He also said he expects the company would arrange deliveries so they occur during normal landfill operating hours.
Several concerns were also raised about the largest potential water contaminator - salt.
Wehler said the salt is not classified as a hazardous material, and that he expected any response to spills or accidents would occur within the normal administrative process of the 911 center, although company officials would be available at the treatment facility.
He also said DEP is requiring the treatment plant to reduce salt amounts to the equivalent of drinking water by 2011.
As for the danger to radiation, Hamsher said measurements of typical sludge material suggested it will be no more dangerous than what is found in the ground or air in Clinton County, in other words, typical background radiation.
Wehler also said that, given the depth of the drilling and the relative depth of a normal household water well, it's highly unlikely that the drilling will lead to contaminated wells.
Several residents offered a scathing criticism of the landfill, DEP and the drilling industry, saying they had seen it all before.
"DEP will regulate, but there will be pollution," one of them argued. "I don't think you have the right to mess up my river, and I don't think you have the right to mess up my life."
"You're being unfair," Wehler said. "You're mentality is, 'Let's allow nothing.'"
Dershem described the effort as "an experiment," and said, "Come back in 2011 ... Wayne Township is not ready for cutting edge."