A new ban on shale drilling waste pits in Pennsylvania — and on federal land — could soon change the way waste from hydraulic fracturing is stored and disposed.

According to a March 17 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently announced plans to ban temporary waste pits at shale gas well sites in the Marcellus and Utica shales. On March 20, the Obama administration announced a similar ban on these waste pits, prohibiting them from federally-owned lands.

This will effectively ban the use of waste pits, a practice that has long been commonplace until recently, as the DEP says most shale drillers have turned to steel storage tanks as a tidier and safer alternative to dispose of waste. In addition to affecting wells throughout the entire state of Pennsylvania, some 3,400 hydraulically-fractured wells on federal lands would be affected.

If drilling companies don’t upgrade their wastewater ponds or transfer the waste to temporary or field erected tanks within three years of the DEP’s rules going into effect, they will be forced to close the wastewater ponds — which have a significant record of contributing to soil and water contamination.

A temporary tank is intended to store materials for a length of time between 30 days and one year; a field-erected tank is any tank constructed on-site, usually with a capacity exceeding 50,000 gallons.

“You can bring them in, deploy them, store fluids in a relatively quick fashion and once you’re done, remove the tanks and take them to the next site,” David Yoxtheimer, a hydrogeologist with Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, told the Post-Gazette of these temporary steel storage tanks.

Unlike waste pits and impoundments, which are prone to leaks that contaminate the surrounding environment, above ground storage tanks are required to have secondary containment areas that contain any spills or leaks.

Ultimately, Yoxtheimer says the DEP’s proposed rules would allow for greater environmental protection while also allowing shale drillers to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively.

“There is always that opportunity to do the next better thing,” he said. “I think this is definitely the next better thing.”

What are your thoughts on the Pennsylvania DEP’s decision to ban shale drilling waste pits? Have any other questions for us about above ground storage tanks? Get the conversation going — leave a comment below.