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Pa. House effort seeks to ban spreading drilling wastewater on roads

  • Rachel McDevitt
A truck sprays a dust suppressant on a dirt road in Pennsylvania. Some communities in Northwest Pennsylvania use conventional oil and gas waste as a suppressant.

Eric Chase

A truck sprays a dust suppressant on a dirt road in Pennsylvania. Some communities in Northwest Pennsylvania use conventional oil and gas waste as a suppressant.

A bill in the state House would put an end to spreading wastewater from oil and gas drilling on roads.

State regulators have not permitted the practice since 2017. But it still continues in rural areas, without the required permits.

Water used in drilling that returns to the surface, called wastewater or brine, has been sold to townships as an affordable way to keep dust down on dirt and gravel roads for decades.

Recent lab studies at Penn State have shown that drilling brines are not only ineffective at suppressing dust, they are also full of salt that can degrade roads and radioactive elements that pose a health risk to people living nearby.

At an informational hearing Monday, Eric Chase with the Penn State Center for Dirt and Gravel Road Studies said the wastewaters often have chloride concentrations, a type of salt, higher than 100,000 milligrams per liter–that’s five times saltier than sea water. Standards limit chloride in drinking water to 250 mg per liter.

Measurements of radium in wastewaters range from 80-2,500 picocuries per liter. The center’s acceptable limit is 15 picocuries per liter.

“These oil and gas produced waters would not qualify for use or funding within the program due to failing multiple environmental testing protocols that have been set up for over 20 years with the program’s goal to do no harm to the environment,” Chase said.

The state House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee passed a bill Tuesday that would prohibit land spreading of oil and gas wastewaters, sending it to the full House for consideration.

Regulations adopted in 2016 prohibit unconventional drillers, which use fracking and horizontal drilling to reach gas deep underground, from spreading wastewater on roads. The Marcellus Shale Coalition has said unconventional operators recycle 90 percent of wastewater to frack new wells. The rest is injected deep underground.

The Department of Environmental Protection stopped authorizing brine-spreading for conventional drillers in 2018, following a lawsuit. Conventional drillers typically drill shallower wells compared to unconventional.

Companies have reported using road spreading as a disposal method for wastewater after DEP stopped permitting it.

Former DEP Secretary David Hess, who held the job from 2001-03 and who helped craft the bill, said the administration during his leadership put out guidelines for limiting the amount of brine that could be applied to roads, but the conventional industry never complied.

“I think it’s clear an immediate and total ban on road dumping conventional oil and gas wastewater is the only effective way to prevent millions of gallons of wastewater from polluting our environment,” Hess said.

Tom Pike with the advocacy group Protect PT, said the state should regulate waste based on the chemicals it contains, not what process produced it.

“All I’m asking for you to do is apply the same standards to the gas industry as you do to me; when I don’t dispose of my waste properly, I get a fine. They should too,” Pike said.

Jack Lee, a Township Supervisor for Summit Township in Erie County, spoke on behalf of the State Association of Township Supervisors. He said many townships use brine because it’s affordable.

But he stressed everything needs to be done in moderation.

“So if there’s somebody out there that’s dumping brine just to dump brine, that’s a little ridiculous. There’s no reason that they have to brine near a pond or a lake or streams,” Lee said.

Lawmakers who oppose a ban say it’s an attack on rural communities that can’t afford more expensive, commercial alternatives to drilling wastewater for treating roads.

Three industry groups for conventional drillers–the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association, the Pennsylvania Independent Petroleum Producers, and the Pennsylvania Grade Crude Oil Coalition–wrote a letter to the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee to oppose the bill.

The groups said dust from dirt roads is a significant source of air pollution and that brine has served as an economical source of dust control for decades.

They complained the Penn State studies were performed in a lab and not in the field on real roads.

The studies were funded by DEP. Kurt Klapkowski, Deputy Secretary of the Office of Oil and Gas Management, said it would have been too difficult to control for other factors in a field study.

He noted a previous field study for different contaminants found no difference between a test road and a control road, only for researchers to find later that both roads were getting treated.


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