Study: Probing Pennsylvania roadway wastewater hazardous to human health and the environment

Study: Probing Pennsylvania roadway wastewater hazardous to human health and the environment

From Ad Crable

A long-awaited health study commissioned by Pennsylvania environmental officials is examining the practice of spreading wastewater from conventional gas and oil drilling along thousands of miles of rural dirt roads in the state. The researchers concluded that the practice does not effectively control dust and poses a hazard to the environment and human health.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has yet to act on those findings, but said the impact of the study would be “immediate, large and intense.”

“While we must be willing to accept the trade-offs between the benefits of dust suppression and the disadvantages of environmental impact, this study found that oil and wastewater provide only disadvantages,” said William Burgos, professor of environmental engineering at Penn State University. and one of the study’s lead authors.

After a legal challenge to the practice in 2018 stemming from environmental and health concerns, the DEP temporarily banned most of the distribution of wastewater from conventional oil and gas drilling along approximately 25,000 miles of dirt and gravel roads in the state. Fracking has never been allowed with wastewater from wells using hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking.

But for more than half a century, spraying salty wastewater from conventional oil and gas wells has been a cheap way for industry to get rid of the byproduct while reducing municipal costs for dust control in summer and de-icing roads in winter. Twenty-one of the state’s 67 counties allowed sewage to be spread on rural roads before the temporary ban. Nationally, 12 states have allowed the practice.

According to DEP records, approximately 240 million gallons of drilling wastewater were spread on Pennsylvania roads from 1991 to 2017. Industry officials have long maintained that the spread has had no adverse effects.

For the independent study commissioned by the DEP, Penn State researchers conducted a series of laboratory experiments to test dust generation and suppression. They also measure the chemical composition of the wastewater and study the effects of its runoff. The wastewater samples came from conventional drilling operations obtained confidentially from oil service companies in western Pennsylvania.

Bad substitute

The results show that wastewater is essentially no more effective than rainwater at controlling dust because its high sodium content prevents road dust from binding to the material. In fact, the study notes, “sodium can destabilize gravel roads and increase long-term road maintenance costs.”

The investigation also revealed health and environmental concerns.

Elevated pollutant levels could contaminate nearby water sources, the study concluded. In addition to increasing the salinity of fresh water, the water in some simulations contained heavy metals — such as barium, strontium, lithium, iron and manganese — at levels exceeding human health standards.

Some tests also found radioactive radium, a carcinogen, although often in low concentrations.

In response to the study, the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association says there have been no reports of harmful effects from using what it calls “salt water” on roads.

“From a practical standpoint,” said association president Daniel J. Weaver, “municipal government officials in many small communities in northwestern Pennsylvania with limited resources and miles of unpaved roads have years of experience using salt water for dust control and have reported no environmental or wildlife impacts.”

The DEP said it will host a presentation of the study results with its Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board and possibly propose new regulations on wastewater distribution by mid-July.

The distribution gap is induced

The study wasn’t the only blow to the future use of oil and gas wastewater on rural roads.

Even after the 2018 moratorium, DEP allowed wells to spray wastewater if its composition was similar to commercially available dust suppressants.

A review of state records by the environmental group Better Path Coalition found that 29 drilling companies used the loophole to spill 2.3 million gallons between 2018 and 2020. Twenty-one of those companies did not submit analyzes of their wastewater as required by the state. Of the eight that did, the tests did not show they met the requirements for exemption, according to the group.

The DEP agreed with the group’s findings and said it will review the applications and take enforcement action against violators if any are found. “DEP agrees that the filings are inadequate and continues to review and will take enforcement action if necessary,” an agency spokesperson said.

The department has notified 18 municipalities in four counties that they cannot grant the road enforcement exemption unless DEP reviews the applications.

Another wrinkle could involve the state attorney general’s office. A consultant for conventional oil and gas operators revealed in April to the state’s Commodity Development Advisory Board that a special agent from the attorney general’s office interviewed operators and consultants related to the exemptions.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office told the Bay Journal that he could neither confirm nor deny that the office is investigating the possible illegal spread of sewage.

Inspection for wells

Conventional oil and gas drilling in Pennsylvania also faces scrutiny for abandoned wells that are not plugged as required by law to prevent pollution.

The DEP’s initial list of abandoned wells that would receive $400 million in federal plugging funds included 7,300 wells currently listed as active, with identified owners.

In response, the DEP said the list contained some errors and that the department would try to identify which wells had owners who could be held responsible.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club filed a records request under the state’s Right to Know Act and found more than 4,270 notices of violations sent to drillers for abandoning oil and gas wells without plugging them. The Sierra Club charged that the industry practice was routine.

The Pennsylvania Board of Environmental Quality is considering a petition to increase bond amounts for conventional and unconventional oil and gas wells to save taxpayers the cost of plugging them when they’re abandoned.

Ad Crable is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Pennsylvania. Contact him at [email protected]. This article first appeared in the June 2022 Bay Journal and was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.

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