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State Official: Pa. Water Meets Safe Drinking Standards

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Is the state allowing natural gas drillers to pollute our rivers and streams?

Environmentalists claim the state is allowing drilling waste water to spill untreated into our waterways.

"We have a new industry in our state. It's generating millions of gallons of hazardous waste water and they don't have a proper treatment system in place," said Myron Arnowitt of Clean Water Action.

The issue is so-called frac water -- the water pumped underground to fracture shale sediments and free the natural gas.

The Associated Press says the state has allowed the dumping of millions of gallons of tainted water, but the state's top environmental official, John Hanger, says that was before new standards were approved and put into effect in August.

Those standards require that the water discharged be significantly free of so-called total dissolved solids -- the salt and phosphates found in the frac water.

"The water that's coming out of the tap in Pennsylvania is meeting the safe water drinking standards when it comes to total dissolved solids," said Hanger. "Every single drop that is coming out of the tap in Pennsylvania today meets the safe drinking water standard."

"We do think the new regulations are good. We supported that. No one around here has built a plant that can meet those regulations," Arnowitt said.

And the environmentalists are right. The area's water treatment plants are not equipped to treat the frac water, but Hanger says now about 70 percent of the frac water is being treated in plants like one in New Stanton and then used again. The water comes in black and dirty and is cleaned except for a heavy salt content. The water is then recycled into the fracking process in a so-called closed system.

Hanger says that while plants are being built to treat water to be clean enough to return directly to the waterways, the state is allowing some discharges of partially treated water into rivers and streams where total dissolved solids are low or below the clean water standard of 500 parts per million.

"We do not have any streams that are above 500 per million," he said. "In fact, most all our streams in Pennsylvania are well below this standard."

In sum, state environmental regulators say they've gotten ahead of the problem and are protecting our rivers and streams from drilling discharges, but as this industry grows, environmentalists says they intend to hold the state and the drillers to those standards.

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