I attended the Underground Construction Technology International Conference & Exhibition early this month in Atlanta. It’s focused on a variety of underground techniques, but HDD is the most important part to my readers. Panels and roundtables covered topics ranging from drilling fluids to minimizing project risk. One interesting tidbit I wanted to share with readers came from Richard Levings, product development manager with American Augers.

Levings moderated the productivity and fluid management tract for HDD contractors. I pulled him aside at the trade show to talk in more detail about WOTUS, which he mentioned in the morning’s presentations.

(This is just part of our conversation. Read the full interview in April’s National Driller.)

“WOTUS stands for ‘waters of the U.S.,’ ” he explained. “And it is an EPA and Army Corp of Engineers rule that gives them control over all of the water systems in the entire United States — and when I say water systems, I mean all of the watersheds.”

The new waters of the U.S. regulations expand and clarify the EPA’s mandate to protect the resource, but they can have huge implications for drillers working in HDD and elsewhere. The updated federal regulations are currently on pause after 13 states sued. The 6th Circuit stayed the new rules for the entire U.S. — not just those 13 states — as challenges work their way through the court system.

Levings says the expansion of WOTUS regulations puts an extra burden on contractors trying to dispose of drilling fluids.

“In other words, the federal government will gain control over what happens on as much — it appears from the map — where it could be 85 percent of the landmass of the lower 48 and Alaska,” he says. “It’s going to heavily affect the agricultural industry, and our industry leans on the agricultural industry to be able to land spread directional drilling fluids.”

He emphasized these points during the sessions at UCT, so it could really sink in for drillers.

“There have been studies done that show that land application is a viable alternative for them [HDD contractors],” he said. “If WOTUS goes through, that is taken off the table. Furthermore, because it is being wrapped into the Clean Water Act, there will be no disposal where any of those things could leak into any of these watersheds because of the Clean Water Act. It’s a complicated situation, but it is on the table. Right now, it is blocked by the courts, but that’s not forever.”

Levings says disposal options for drilling fluids will become “very limited.”

“I can’t sit here and tell you that I know exactly where we will wind up if that passes,” he said. “It is something that could, overnight, affect us dramatically in this industry. And so we need to have our eyes on it, be paying attention to it and understand what may come our way.”

The EPA says on its website that WOTUS does not cover every ditch, as many in the drilling industry may fear. But any change in the regulatory layout should concern those in the industry. Levings suggests drillers get ready for changes — if they come — by working smarter on the handling and disposal of drilling waste.

“Over my 27 years, I’ve seen things grow from not having to do them to having to do them, and this is one that is plain as day. It’s in the transition. And so, it’s better to be ahead of the curve rather than waiting until they’re regulated to do it.”

How is disposal in your part of the country? How much are you paying per gallon to dispose of the fluids your crews generate? To tell me your story from the field, send me an email.

Stay safe out there, drillers.