By Anya Litvak / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Max Environmental Technologies, an Upper St. Clair firm that operates two landfills and provides half a dozen other services to the oil and gas industry, is planning a major expansion at its Bulger waste disposal site in Washington County.
The new project, which is still several years from breaking ground, would cost about $20 million to complete and is being driven by the needs of companies tapping the Marcellus Shale in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Carl Spadaro, environmental general manager at Max, said he expects more than 75 percent of the waste at the proposed landfill would come in the shape of drill cuttings, drilling mud and fluids.
“We think it’s substantial, and that [the] need will be sustained certainly for the next 10 to 15 years,” he said.
The future 21-acre Bulger landfill is envisioned as a one-stop shop for oil and gas companies, Mr. Spadaro said. It will accept solid waste and solidify some liquid waste, in addition to leasing a portion of its land to a flowback water recycling company, TerrAqua Resource Management.
Neither Max nor TerrAqua have requested permits from the Department of Environmental Protection yet. That will come later this year, Mr. Spadaro said. The landfill company has engaged township officials and sent notices to neighbors inviting them to a public meeting on June 23 at the Slovan VFW.
Retooling for oil and gas
Founded in 1957 under another name, Max started out with the Bulger landfill that took waste from steel mills and construction sites. The landfill had both hazardous and non-hazardous waste, and in the late 1980s proposed a major expansion at Bulger for more hazardous waste services.
But the plan never materialized as Max shifted priorities to nonhazardous waste.
The current effort is a resurrection of that plan, but with non-hazardous residual waste, mostly from oil and gas activity.
Max has been targeting shale gas drilling operations for years and has retooled itself as an oil and gas service company. It now rents equipment to drilling operations, cleans their trucks, provides warehouse space and offers transportation services.
It’s in the process of expanding its Yukon landfill in Westmoreland County to accommodate more drilling waste and petitioned the DEP in 2012 to remove a restriction on accepting radioactive waste.
Drill cuttings from shale wells bring up radioactive elements that had been trapped underground. Some such waste loads have tripped radioactivity alarms at landfills.
Mr. Spadaro said he’s not concerned about radioactivity.
“We’ve been doing a fair amount of drilling waste disposal activity over past 10 to 12 months. Since we’ve had that radiation limit change last year, we haven’t had one incident of any truck with drilling waste triggering a radiation alarm at the Yukon facility,” he said.
In 2011, Max asked the DEP for permission to accept some liquid waste from Marcellus Shale operators that it would then solidify and place in its landfill. The process of getting that permit took two and a half years. Earlier this year, the company received approval to do the same at its current Bulger facility.
Max is even looking to mine limestone and sandstone at its Yukon landfill, which it would sell to drillers for road and well-pad construction.
Still, the company’s biggest revenue generator is Max’s landfill business and will remain so for some time, Mr. Spadaro said.
Location, location, location
In 2013, oil and gas operators trucked more than a million tons of drilling waste produced in Pennsylvania to landfills across four states. Max’s Bulger facility accepted 22,000 tons of that waste.
The company’s Yukon landfill, an 18-acre site, in 2013 took in 75,000 tons.
The other major waste product coming out of shale wells is millions of gallons of flowback water and production brine. Last year, TerrAqua’s frack water treatment plant in Williamsport processed 171,298 barrels of this water, less than a quarter of the volume pulsing through it in its heyday in 2011, according to DEP records.
Back then, the Lycoming County plant was bustling with trucks lined up waiting to dump off their waste and lug treated water back to well sites to be used in more fracking. “There was lots of water needs and lots of demand,” said Mike Nerbas, vice president of U.S. operations at Newalta, a Calgary-based company that’s part owner of TerrAqua’s facility. “They wanted back every drop that they brought.”
But drilling activity, especially in the northeastern part of the state, tempered as gas prices tumbled below $2 per million cubic feet in 2012 and drilling dry gas wells became less economical. Now, the Williamsport plant is “well under” capacity, Mr. Nerbas said.
It functions more like a water warehouse, he said. Companies may have wastewater to drop off but they may not be fracking more wells fast enough to need treated water immediately. So TerrAqua sells their treated water to other producers.
The company’s interest in southwestern Pennsylvania follows oil and gas operators shifting more resources to this part of the Marcellus Shale, where much of the gas is rich with valuable liquids. This region is also closer to activity in the Utica Shale, currently most active in eastern Ohio.
“One of the biggest things we’re looking to accomplish at this site is to manage their logistics as much as water quality,” Mr. Nerbas said. “Transportation’s having such a huge impact [on] the overall cost to the customer, there’s a real value of being close.”
That applies to TerrAqua as well, which needs to dispose of solids in the flowback water it treats. Being next door to a landfill will eliminate trucking costs.
Mr. Nerbas estimated the wastewater treatment facility will cost between $3 million and $5 million to build and employ five people per shift.
TerrAqua plans to lease land from Max to build it, but Mr. Nerbas described the arrangement as less a real estate transaction than a strategic partnership.
“Their sales group and our sales group will work together,” he said, to bring clients into the facility and leverage each others’ business.
Anya Litvak: email@example.com or 412-263-1455.