LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The Coast Guard won’t adopt a policy clearing the way for barges to ship large amounts of fracking wastewater on the Ohio River and other waterways.

The agency, which regulates safety rules for vessels that carry hazardous materials, formally withdrew the proposal in the Tuesday edition of the Federal Register, the journal for notices issued by the U.S. government.

The Coast Guard said in the notice that barge owners can continue to seek approval to carry the wastewater under current regulations that evaluate permits on a case-by-case basis. The agency has yet to allow any such shipments, a spokeswoman said.      

More than 70,000 comments were submitted, with about 98 percent objecting to the policy creating standards for moving wastewater from shale gas drilling. A smaller number of comments – about two percent – suggested that a “rulemaking” would be a better approach.  

“These things should be scrutinized and handled on a case-by-case basis. Operations vary widely,” said Lane Boldman, executive director of the Kentucky Conservation Committee. In her comment to the Coast Guard, she argued that waste shipments could put water supplies at risk.

Boldman, who said she has monitored fracking since 2009, said there are still many unknowns about the makeup of chemicals in wastewater that would travel on the nation’s rivers.

The Coast Guard proposed the policy change in fall 2013 as companies sought to move wastewater from drilling operations in eastern states to disposal sites in Ohio, Texas and Louisiana. The Ohio and Mississippi rivers are among the likely routes for those shipments.

But in its notice, the agency said it withdrew the proposal partly because it had not received “significant interest from industry.” It plans to consider a standard process for transporting wastewater after determining whether "current regulations are inadequate" and other environmental impacts.

The proposal triggered a debate over how best to get rid of a mixture of water, chemicals and sand that are blasted underground, helping to free deposits of natural gas. Environmentalists and others raised concerns that an accident could contaminate rivers and taint drinking water; the barge industry argued the waste could be moved safely.

The American Waterways Operators, which pushed for the policy change, declined to respond to several requests for comment. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group based in Pittsburgh, did not immediately return phone calls Tuesday afternoon seeking comment.

The Ohio River provides drinking water for more than five million people, according to the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, an eight-state agency that monitors the river's water quality. Wastewater from fracking operations “can pose an immediate threat to drinking water utilities if released directly from a loaded barge” or a storage facility, the agency wrote in a comment to the Coast Guard.

An ORSANCO spokeswoman declined to comment Tuesday.

The Ohio is the nation’s most polluted river, absorbing more than 24 million pounds of chemicals in 2013, according to data from ORSANCO. Nitrate compounds, such an untreated sewage, account for roughly 92 percent of the releases.

Last summer, Kentucky and other states warned water skiers, boaters and others not to come into contact with river water after harmful algae blooms were spotted on the Ohio. The blooms form when the river and its tributaries are flooded with excess nutrients, such as agricultural fertilizer and eroded soil.

The amount of mercury in the river – 132 pounds – fell to its lowest level in six years in 2013. Still, Kentucky officials recently revised the guidelines for eating fish from all state waters, including the Ohio, because of mercury levels.

Statewide, officials now urge people to eat no more than one meal per month that includes smallmouth and largemouth bass and other predatory fish; and no more than one meal per week with bottom feeder fish, such as catfish, and bluegill, crappie and other panfish. Pregnant women and children should eat those fish sparingly.

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