The U.S. Coast Guard issued a proposed policy letter on October 30th that puts forward a process to issue endorsements to barge owners to transport shale gas extraction wastewater in bulk. The letter creates specific conditions that barge owners would have to meet to obtain a certificate of inspection endorsement allowing wastewater transport. Barge owners that do not obtain such a certificate would be barred from bulk wastewater transport. Hydraulic fracturing wastewater is currently either stored at the drilling site or transported by rail or truck to underground injection wells. High surface transportation costs have created a strong commercial interest in transporting hydraulic fracturing wastewater along inland waterways from production sites in northern Appalachia to disposal sites in Ohio, Texas, and Louisiana.

Tank vessels are currently allowed to transport bulk liquid hazardous materials if the material is a “listed cargo.” A “listed cargo” is a cargo that consists of hazardous materials listed in any of several specified tables in Coast Guard regulations at 46 CFR Parts 148, 150, 151, and 153. The Coast Guard, however, has stated that hydraulic fracturing wastewater cannot be considered a “listed cargo” because the specific chemical composition of such wastewater varies, and because it may also contain hazardous constituents, such as radioactive isotopes radium-226 and radium-228.

The policy letter proposes to require barge owners to submit a sample of the wastewater to a state-accredited laboratory for analysis of chemical composition. Barge owners would be required to retain the reports of these analyses for two years, and to submit them to the Coast Guard upon request. The proposed policy letter sets limits for radioactive concentrations and consignment activity for each radioactive isotope that could be present in the wastewater. Transportation of the wastewater under a conditional permit or endorsement would not be allowed if such limits are exceeded. The letter also proposes to require barge owners to record radiation levels of barge interiors to ensure that the barge is safe for personnel and that the radioactivity present does not exceed contamination limits. If the contamination limits are exceeded, the barge would need to be cleaned, precipitated solids would need to be removed, and a new radiation survey would need to be conducted.

The Coast Guard is accepting public comments on the proposed policy letter until November 29th, and plan to finalize the policy letter thereafter.

With assistance from Andrew McNamee