Residents of the The Natural State are wondering how clean their waterways will be if the oil and gas industry has its way with a disputed water discharge permit. An administrative law judge is anticipated to rule soon on citizen concerns about allowing treated wastewater, possibly from natural gas hydraulic fracturing or fracking operations, to enter Arkansas’ public streams. We told you about citizen concerns earlier this year when the permit was pending.
“I have a strong feeling that so many authorities that are supposed to be protecting us are not doing their job.” — downstream resident Leonard Uecker
The rural community of Bee Branch, Arkansas north of Little Rock is home to a facility in the works to become a regional hub for treating wastewater from oil and gas operations. Southeastern Energy Corporation or SEECO, owned by giant Southwestern Energy, has been cooperating jointly with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality to establish the facility.
In a joint statement issued recently, SEECO, Inc. and ADEQ declared, “Wastewater discharged from the permitted facility would first be treated by several methods, including ‘reverse osmosis’ which would produce water that is purified (drinkable quality) at the outfall.” In question are who would ensure the treated water is really that pure, whether the facility should be allowed to discharge into the stream, and why it would need to if it truly intends to reuse the water for industry.
Downstream resident Leonard Uecker sees no need for his industrial neighbor to discharge anything into a stream that could eventually affect drinking water supplies. “The recycling part is a good idea,” Uecker says. He questions why a facility set up to recycle industrial wastewater wouldn’t simply reuse or safely dispose of that water without jeopardizing local streams. The ADEQ office says, “The permit allows for the facility to discharge treated wastewaters when there is an excess and the option of recycling is not available.” Uecker and citizen group Save Greers Ferry Lake think SEECO should closely manage its recycling efforts so it won’t need a discharge permit.
Watchdog group ArkansasFracking.org is also concerned about the potential discharge facility. Adding to community distrust is the mystery surrounding proprietary chemical mixes in fracking fluid and scientists’ concerns that modern, deep, horizontal fracking can even disturb radioactive substances found naturally underground. Many citizens are not convinced that the best technology can clean up this chemical cocktail.
The waterway in question includes Cadron Creek, which is considered an Extraordinary Water Resource (ERW) and which feeds into the Arkansas River Basin. Uecker says he’s concerned about the future of Greers Ferry Lake as a public water supply and the integrity of some neighbors’ private wells. He’s concerned that if this permit is allowed, it could set a precedent for allowing more discharges around the lake. Uecker shared, “I have a strong feeling that so many authorities that are supposed to be protecting us are not doing their job.”
The state health department seems to be staying clear of the entire dispute, only being concerned about immediate sources of drinking water, not upstream sources. ADEQ, focused on the letter of the law, stated, “Arkansas water quality regulations do not prohibit discharge into a ERW.” While standards have long been in place for measuring things like E-coli bacteria levels in water, it’s less clear that public policy has kept up with industrial advances in energy exploration or the science to ensure it’s done safely. Whatever the outcome of this dispute, it will be a first for Arkansas and will be watched closely by energy and environmental leaders around the country.
Here’s a look at public documents currently on file about the Bee Branch facility with the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission.