Hugh McQuaid photo

The Senate approved a three-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing wastewater Monday as part of a bipartisan bill that environmental advocates described as “watered down.”

If approved by the House and the governor, the legislation will temporarily ban waste associated with the “fracking” process used to extract natural gas. The state does not have natural gas deposits of its own, but advocates have raised concerns that companies will truck the wastewater into Connecticut from operations in nearby states.

Environment Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Ed Meyer said his panel voted to act on the issue “after receiving a lot of scientific evidence that fracking waste is extremely toxic, full of radioactivity, bromides, toxic metals” and has prompted lawsuits “in Pennsylvania because of contamination of water from fracking waste.”

Connecticut is too far from fracking operations to make it a realistic location for waste. But Meyer said that could change as nearby New York is considering lifting its current ban on fracking.

The bill, which was moved to the consent calendar after hours of debate, gives the state Energy and Environmental Protection Department three years to decide how to regulate the waste. It permits the agency to allow a limited amount of wastewater into Connecticut in order to study it.

It reflects one of two proposals raised this session to deal with possibility of fracking waste being shipped into Connecticut. Environmental advocates had backed a bill, Senate Bill 237, which proposed an outright prohibition of the substance. On Monday, lawmakers took that bill, gutted it, and replaced it with the temporary moratorium.

Chris Phelps, campaign director with Environment Connecticut, said they “watered down” important elements of the original bill. He said the new language will serve as a stopgap to largely keep the materials out of the state in the short term, but should be replaced with a permanent solution.

“We need to come back. In the coming year we’ll be advocating to tighten up the law to ensure that it keeps fracking waste out of the state because this stuff is so toxic, it should be kept out of Connecticut,” Phelps said. “It’s a starting point, but the bill does not get us where we need to be, which is an outright ban on toxic and radioactive fracking waste.”

During the floor debate, Meyer said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration favored a moratorium rather than a ban. The bill’s moratorium will hold until July 2017, at which time DEEP will be permitted to submit their regulations. The recommendations will need to be reviewed by the legislature’s Regulation Review Committee.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle supported the approach. Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, said the state did not proactively shield residents from byproducts of nuclear energy. He said it was appropriate to be careful with a new energy process.

“Why wouldn’t we take the measures ahead of time, be pre-emptive, saying we don’t know enough about the byproduct waste in hydraulic fracturing to say ‘Well, we don’t care, you can store it over here,’” he said. “I think it doesn’t close the door. I think it says ‘take your time, study the issue, find out if there are harmful side effects.’”

Others argued that the waste was unlikely to be an issue in Connecticut. Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, opposed the bill, saying the state was located too far from potential fracking sites.

“I really would like to be realistic in the discussion about this topic of how likely it is to come here and based upon sheer mileage, I don’t see that happening” he said.

Meyer declined to weigh in on the likelihood of fracking waste being shipped to Connecticut.

“This bill is being offered . . . in order to avoid what many people feel is a danger to our security and our safety and our health. You could say, Sen. McLachlan, ‘Better safe than sorry,’” he said.