Wolf administration unveils its plan to toughen rules over natural gas drilling waste, impact

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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — A forthcoming proposal to toughen regulations for the Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling industry will target how it stores waste, dampens noise and affects public water resources, schools and playgrounds, state environmental regulators said Monday.

The proposal is the first signal from Gov. Tom Wolf's administration of how it will approach the natural gas industry after the Democrat campaigned last year on a promise to toughen state regulation of the industry. He also is seeking lawmakers' approval of higher taxes on booming natural gas production to boost aid to public schools.

The administration's approach to waste storage was motivated, in part, by leaking wastewater impoundments in southwestern Pennsylvania that prompted the Department of Environmental Protection last year to pursue multimillion-dollar fines.

The proposal is "balanced, incremental and appropriate," John Quigley, Wolf's nominee to head the department, said in a conference call briefing on the forthcoming draft.

Quigley and other department officials said they hope to enact the proposal into regulation next spring after a 30-day public comment period beginning April 4.

In the proposal, agency officials say they want inspectors to undertake more stringent reviews of proposed drilling sites that are within 100 feet of streams or wetlands and require drillers to create site-specific noise control plans.

They also want tougher regulations over waste storage and to require drilling permit applications to analyze how the proposed new well could affect drinking water sources, schools and playgrounds.

On waste storage, the administration wants to eliminate the use of pits to store drill cuttings and wastewater at drilling sites — even though it knows of none in use by the shale drilling industry — and toughen regulations for the centralized impoundments that store wastewater from multiple drilling sites.

The department has said leaks from impoundments prompted the agency's $4.5 million civil complaint against Pittsburgh-based EQT Corp. last October and a $4.15 million settlement in September with Range Resources Corp. of Fort Worth, Texas.

Under the administration's proposal, an impoundment would need to be shut down in three years or comply with tougher standards applied to landfills, including a thicker liner, different siting restrictions, higher bonding amounts and a more involved public participation process, said Scott Perry, a deputy agency secretary for oil and gas operations.

The wastewater impoundments play a key role in the recycling of the wastewater, although some companies used tanks instead. Six companies operate 17 impoundments statewide, and the department has received permit applications for 13 more, Perry said.

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