Over the summer, ProPublica revealed that the wastewater produced through the fracking process — primarily water mixed with salt and who-knows-what chemicals — was often stuffed into over-pressure wells, and that an unknown number of those wells are leaking. Fracking companies stroked their chins and said, “Hm,” and came up with a proposal: Well then, why don’t we ship the wastewater in barges on rivers before we stuff it into the ground?

A barge carries environmentally-friendly coal up the Ohio River

gb_packardsA barge carries environmentally friendly coal up the Ohio River.

From PublicSource:

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The shale gas drilling industry wants to move its wastewater by barge on rivers and lakes across the country. But the U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates the nation’s waterways, must first decide whether it’s safe. …

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The Coast Guard has been considering whether to allow the industry to use the waterways for about a year, according to [Commander Michael Roldan, chief of the Coast Guard’s Hazardous Material Division], who said the question came up when the Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh — the local office of the Coast Guard — called the Washington office to clarify whether bulk transport was allowed after Marcellus Shale drillers began making inquiries.

The Coast Guard’s decision would affect more than Pittsburgh’s iconic three rivers. Nearly 12,000 miles of waterways could be open to these waterborne behemoths, each carrying 10,000 barrels of wastewater.

Of course it’s safe, Coast Guard! Jeez. I challenge you to name one time when the fossil fuel industry has transported fluids by ship and anything bad has happened. (Here is a list of 140 of them.) And it’s not like you have scientists saying anything could go wrong, except Benjamin Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University, who told PublicSource, “Oh, crap. A lot of things could go wrong.”

A barge accident would be a “massive catastrophe,” said Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action, a national environmental advocacy organization.

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“It’s not just a contamination of a waterway,” Mr. Hvozdovich said. “You’re talking about the contamination of the drinking water supply for about half a million people. … It seems like a very bad idea.”

But industry officials and transportation experts counter that other industrial materials, some toxic, are moved on barges now. They include chlorine, hydrochloric acid and anhydrous ammonia. Why should the drilling industry be treated differently? they ask.

Yes, yes, good argument. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to do this dangerous thing when so many other people are? It’s the corporate version of, “But all the other kids are doing it!” To which the best response should be, “Well, fracking company, if all the other kids spilled toxic fluids into a waterway serving as a source of drinking water and were subsequently sued for millions or billions of dollars in addition to having to spend millions or billions on clean up, would you do it too?” (And the fracking companies would probably respond with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”)

One thing that might hold up the Coast Guard’s analysis: No one is sure how much wastewater we’d be talking about. So let’s make a deal: We agree to allow shipping by barge, as long as the amount does not exceed that which could be held in the barge captain’s mouth for the duration of the journey. Government regulation at its finest.