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The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) has proposed a new state regulation that would help keep tabs on waste pits constructed on natural gas drilling sites across the state. The rule would allow ADEQ to team up with the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission, which recently passed a similar rule (known as rule B-17), to help regulate the pits. However, some environmentalists are concerned that the proposed rule doesn't go further than what's been in place the last several years.
The regulation will cover pits built on drilling pads, which are constructed to hold various types of fluids used or produced during the drilling process.
Currently, natural gas companies that construct the pits must follow rules set forth in a general permit awarded by ADEQ, which was put in place once the Fayetteville Shale exploration began approximately six years ago. The rules contained in that permit will be put into the new regulation. Teresa Marks, director of ADEQ, says the proposed regulation will allow ADEQ and AOGC to co-regulate the pits.
"So what we've gone from is instead of ADEQ being the only agency that has enforcement authority, we've gone to concurrent authority [with the AOGC] for those spills that happen on drilling pad premises." Marks says.
ADEQ has had problems regulating these pits in the past as well as pits used to hold drilling waste before its disposal because of an inadequate number of inspectors. Marks says the addition of AOGC inspectors will help ameliorate that problem.
"This will allow AOGC inspectors to go out and take care of these matters that happen on the pit at the time they see it," Marks says. "They're out more than we are in these areas, since that's their core focus, so when they're out there and they see a violation, they can go ahead and take some enforcement action at that time. It will really give us more eyes and ears out there. Environmental regulations will be enforced by two agencies instead of just one."
But some environmentalists aren't convinced that the rule includes enough protections for landowners.
Andy Cheshier, a member of the group CARE, Citizens Against Resource Exploitation, says one of the main problems with the proposed ADEQ rule, and the one recently passed by AOGC, is that neither of them ever mentions the word "landowner."
"There's not one mention of landowners in B-17," he says. "They're supposed to be looking out for landowners too, but they don't mention them once. It's just the same ol', same ol'."
Cheshier says the rule should be more stringent about protecting water sources because these types of pits can overflow after heavy rainfall and pollute waterways.
"I wish they would have gone a bit farther on some stuff like setting the pits back from water wells or creeks. I've had friends that have lost cows because of these pits," Cheshier says.
The language in the rule is vague, saying the location of mud, circulation or reserve pits must be "chosen with reasonable consideration to maximizing the distance from surface waters." But, as Cheshier points out, there are no concrete measurements mentioned.
Cheshier also thinks the rule doesn't have enough "teeth," but Larry Bengal, the director of AOGC, disagrees.
"We have an internal policy for our inspectors to visit drilling wells once per week during the drilling process," Bengal says. "If there are any complaints, we follow-up as soon as possible. Operations can be shut down under certain circumstances and civil penalties can be issued for violations."
Those penalties include citations of noncompliance, fines of up to $1,000 day if problems go uncorrected or an additional $1,500 fine if the violation creates a hazard for a potable water well.
Marks is hopeful the new regulation will help protect the state's waterways.
"This is the first time we've probably had this clear of a concurrent enforcement authority with another agency," she says. "I can't think of another instance where it's been specifically like this. We hope that this will increase our presence and our enforcement authority because that's what we're trying to do: basically combine our resources and respond to these issues in a quick and efficient manner."
The final wording of the regulation has not been set in stone. The proposed regulation will be up for public comment until Feb. 8. A public meeting will be held on Jan. 25 to discuss the proposal and its implications. The meeting will be held at 2 p.m. at ADEQ headquarters in North Little Rock.
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