Water management

In Pennsylvania, Use of Oil and Gas Waste Water on Dirt Roads Kicks Up Dust

The debate over whether to again allow briny waste water pumped from conventional oil and gas wells to be spread on Pennsylvania’s dirt roads has become as salty and charged as the material itself.

A vehicle kicks up dust on a rural dirt road in Pennsylvania. Dust inhalation is a serious health problem in the US. Oil and gas well producers are fighting environmentalists in the state over using waste water from conventional oil and gas wells to suppress dust and melt ice on thousands of miles of dirt roads.
Source: Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association

The debate over whether to again allow briny, sometimes radioactive, waste water pumped from conventional oil and gas wells to be spread on Pennsylvania’s dirt roads has become as salty and charged as the material itself.

For more than a half-century, the water used to pump oil and gas from the ground has been a savior for rural road managers, with hundreds of millions of gallons spread for free on thousands of miles of back roads to suppress dust in summer and prevent icing in the winter.

A legal challenge led the state to ban the practice in 2018. But now environmentalists are squaring off with drillers and some legislators as the state determines whether it should resume.

In the meantime, most of the drilling wastewater is being stored and reused in conventional oil and gas wells or taken to wastewater treatment plants. In 2018, Duke researchers discovered a buildup of radioactivity in three sites downstream of a treatment plant that handled waste water from these conventional oil and gas wells.

Approximately 240 million gallons of drilling waste water were spread on Pennsylvania roads from 1991 to 2017, according to records, though the practice started before that. Twenty-one of the state’s 67 counties, mainly in northwestern parts of the state, have used the water.

Drillers point out that unpaved roads are the largest source of unhealthy particulate pollution in the country and that dust can settle up to 500 ft from the road edge, slowing growth on crops and yields.

Breathing dust also can cause respiratory and heart problems and is a significant health hazard around the United States.

New Study Fuels Debate
The drilling industry thought it was making headway—a bill to allow road spreading passed the state House in May—until a study by Penn State scientists released in August found that the drilling waste water spread on western Pennsylvania roads was at least three times less effective than commercial alternatives and can actually damage the dirt roads.

Also, the salty water is laden with lead, arsenic, and other pollutants, and it easily washes off roads into nearby streams and sometimes lingers in the air, the study found. Researchers also measured levels of radium, a naturally occurring radioactive element and carcinogen, and found it at levels higher than regulatory health standards allow.

Salt in the waste water becomes mobile and travels into surface and groundwater, which the study says “has negative consequences for agriculture, infrastructure [roads], and aquatic life.”

“Road spreading of [waste water] is an established practice that is generating health and efficacy concerns as the practice gains more attention,” the study concluded.

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