Study: Drilling Waste on Pennsylvania Roads Bad for Health, Land
A health study commissioned by Pennsylvania environmental officials examined the practice of spreading waste water on rural dirt roads in the state. Researchers concluded that the practice doesn’t control dust effectively and poses dangers to the environment and human health.
A long-anticipated health study commissioned by Pennsylvania environmental officials examined the practice of spreading waste water from conventional gas and oil drilling on thousands of miles of rural dirt roads in the state. Researchers concluded that the practice doesn’t control dust effectively and poses dangers to the environment and human health.
The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has not yet acted based on those findings but said that the study’s impact will be “immediate, large, and intense.”
“While we must be willing to accept the trade-offs between the benefits of dust suppression and the drawback of environmental impacts, this research has found that oil and wastewaters only provide drawbacks,” said William Burgos, a professor of environmental engineering at Penn State University and one of the lead authors of the study.
After a legal challenge to the practice in 2018 arising from environmental and health concerns, DEP temporarily banned most spreading of waste water from conventional oil and gas drilling on the approximately 25,000 miles of dirt and gravel roads in the state. Spreading has never been allowed with waste water from wells using hydraulic fracturing.
But for more than a half-century, spreading salty waste water from conventional oil and gas wells was a cheap way for the industry to get rid of a byproduct, while reducing municipal costs for dust control in summer and road deicing in winter. Twenty-one of the state’s 67 counties allowed waste water to be spread on rural roads before the temporary ban. Nationally, 12 states have permitted the practice.
According to DEP records, approximately 240 million gallons of drilling waste water were spread on Pennsylvania roads from 1991 to 2017. Industry officials have long maintained the spreading did not have any adverse consequences.
For the independent study commissioned by DEP, Penn State researchers conducted a series of laboratory experiments to test dust generation and suppression. They also measured the chemical makeup of waste water and explored its runoff effects. The wastewater samples came from conventional drilling operations obtained in confidence from western Pennsylvania oil service companies.
The results showed that waste water was essentially no more effective than rainwater in controlling dust because its high sodium content does not allow road dust to bond to the material. In fact, the study noted, “sodium can destabilize gravel roads and increase long-term road maintenance costs.”
The investigation also revealed health and environmental concerns.
Elevated levels of contaminants could pollute 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, though often in low concentrations.
In response to the study, the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association says there have been no reports of ill effects from the use of what it calls “brine water” on roads.
“As a practical matter,” said the association’s president, Daniel J. Weaver, “municipal government officials in many small northwestern Pennsylvania communities with limited resources and miles of unpaved roads have years of experience using brine water for dust control and have not reported impacts to the environment or wildlife.”