Risky cargo


Whether the shale gas industry should be able to ship its wastewater on the nation’s rivers and lakes is so controversial a question that officials might have been tempted not to touch it with a barge pole.

Fortunately, the U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates the country’s waterways, has spent the past year evaluating the pros and cons of moving huge quantities of the by-product by water. For the public, that’s good news, because safety is paramount and the issue is complicated.

Environmentalists are worried that an accident involving a barge loaded with 10,000 barrels of wastewater could be catastrophic, contaminating the drinking water of millions of people. But industry and transportation officials counter that other industrial materials, some of them toxic, are carried on barges and that wastewater is no more threatening than these substances.

This question demands not political debate, but rather technical analysis by those who know rivers best and whether conventional barges can keep such cargo secure. As the shale drilling industry has grown, so have concerns about disposal of its huge volume of wastewater.

Some of the water is reused, some is treated, and some is injected into underground disposal sites. Much of it is transported by trucks, but barges would be less expensive.

The Coast Guard’s proposal could come in a few weeks. Then public comment will be taken on this important decision, with implications for nearly 12,000 miles of waterways.

“Proceed with caution” must be the watchword. With the Coast Guard’s appraisal, there will be a better chance of doing that.