Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Op-Ed: The Story Behind Stopping Conventional Oil & Gas Brine Spreading On Dirt Roads

By Siri Lawson, Farmington Township, Warren County

I live in Farmington Township, Warren County, PA.  My husband and I moved here in 2009. The move was not voluntary.
Our previous home had become a casualty of a failed frac of a Marcellus Shale “test” well.  We had to abandon that home, the third time we had been forced to move because the oil and gas industry had chosen a catastrophic method to dispose of their waste stream.
We fervently hoped this fourth location would be our last.  A place to rest, recuperate and just be left alone.
In early summer, 2011, vac truck after vac truck appeared on our dirt road dumping wastewater.  By fall, to our absolute horror, we had counted over 30 loads dumped on our road alone.
We would learn the township had been over-brined in the past, but never on this scale.
This was the same waste that had sickened us at our last home.
Farmington Township supervisors listened to my complaints and promised to make it stop.
The DEP listened and noted I complained.
There was so much wastewater dumped the first year that my pictures showed our road coated with a white crystalline salt frost.
Eventually I was told if I wanted it stopped, I would have to be the cop.
The next year my road received less brine, but it did not stop.  I had started developing new and serious illnesses.
My animals were developing odd growths and infections.
Tragically, that year my husband suffered two back to back heart attacks.  He was asked on the operating table if he had recently been exposed to environmental contamination.
In 2016, a woman stopped and asked us to sign a petition requesting our township supervisors stop brining the roads.
The petition was comprised mostly of Amish families.  
Amish families also put hand-painted signs along the dirt roads bordering their properties saying, “No Brine.”
I was told other township roads were being inundated with brine.  Many roads were receiving 2 vac truck loads of brine per day, multiple days per week, month after month, year after year.
People were getting sick.  Brine was running down roads, ditches and into creeks.
Supervisors would not listen to the residents coming forward.
I was prompted to collect a second petition.  There were over 100 dirt road families in tiny, sparse Farmington Township requesting brining be stopped.
When a road receives a massive and repetitive amount of oil and gas wastewater, it begins to exhibit strange behavior.
Excessive brine will stain a dirt road a peach color.  “Officials” tell residents brine is needed to suppress the horrific dust on our dirt roads, but people living on those very same roads will dispute that.  They say brine will make a road dustier.
These same “officials” claim oil and gas wastewater is needed to stabilize dirt roads.  Over-brining causes gravel to sink and sediment fines to rise to the surface and get blown away.
In summer, these heavily brined roads become so “de-stabilized” that potholes make the roads nearly impassable.  
A single load of freshly spread brine coats vehicles and buggies with measurable amounts of sticky, toxic brine mud.  This mud has to be chipped off when it dries.
Frequently in the summer, roads are so de-stabilized by fresh brine that it becomes necessary to use 4-wheel drive.
Anyone living on a brined dirt road is a 24-hour a day, 7-days a week hostage to over-brining.
Vehicles and buggies experience premature and sometimes catastrophic rusting.
Brine mud carried back to the home exposes children and pets.
Brine road dust is insidious, collecting excessively in houses, barns and on vegetation along roadways.
No one in our township was municipal water, only wells.  
There has been little conversation about gardens being planted on free ditch dirt and no mention of township road crews facing constant re-exposure every time they disturb the road surface.
By 2017, pushback from township supervisors and the spectre of more uncontrolled brine road spreading sent us to Fair Shake Legal Services of Pittsburgh.
We were accepted as clients and in front of the Environmental Hearing Board, the lawyers initiated a multi-pronged action against the DEP and the residual waste hauler.  [Case Number: 2017051]
The action asked if we had the right to live safely in our own home.  It was stated brine spreading in our township had violated many environmental laws and standards.
It was also pointed out that spreading of oil and gas wastewater as a whole violated the Solid Waste Management Act.
In preparation for a future hearing, we engaged two experts.  A hydrologist focused on DEP spreading guidelines, the township watershed and topography.
He took the chemical analysis that spreaders are required to periodically submit to the DEP and compared them to the known parameters of shale brine.
What was spread on our roads exceeded that of shale brine.  He showed how little township supervisors know about their own townships and he showed how regulatory oversight of brine spreading is impossible to achieve.
Our second expert researched whether there is historical or present day precedent, or even any basis in scientific fact for the practice of brining.
He found nothing to substantiate it.
As a soil scientist he backed up Farmington Township residents claims that brine does not suppress dust.
Ingredients inherent in brine react with clay particles in roadbeds causing the particles to “delaminate” and produce excess dust.
The legal action ran into 2018, past DEP’s yearly renewal deadline for approving individual applications to spread brine.
Months before the case was over DEP enacted a statewide moratorium on all road spreading in the state.
Soon after that the Pennsylvania state legislature began to craft bills that would radically rewrite existing oil and gas regulations.  
This included a bill that would rename brine. Brine would be called a “natural” product or resource, no longer a residual waste and could soon be once again dumped on roads.
In this legal and political mix was a pending research project undertaken by Penn State.  Originally, this project was undertaken to show oil and gas wastewater could be spread on dirt roads.  That would not be the final conclusion of that project.
My lawyers moved to have the judge decide the case based on existing solid waste law.  The defendants moved to dismiss the case based on the time factor and their expressed belief that environmental law granted them the right to spread.
The DEP was then forced to argue for me and against the oil and gas industry.  That allowed the judge to state that in one sense I had won the argument and achieved my desire to stop road spreading of oil and gas wastewater.
The judge then said he was dismissing the case because the transgressions had occurred in 2017, this was 2018 and there was no sign road spreading would be repeated.
Immediately after my case was dismissed, the long awaited Penn State report was published.  It posed hard questions that need answers before brining could resume and its conclusions were appallingly negative.
Penn State’s research addressed the radiation issue. That one issue alone could leave Pennsylvania with a legacy it will never overcome.
Imagine, a township where brine dumping is so bad, an Amish man links arms with is sons and forms a human chain refusing to let any more brine be dumped in front of his house.
These same Amish rose up at township meetings stating, “You care for the fish more than the people.”
Pennsylvania needs to be a state that cares for fish and people.
I want to be part of a solution to this problem and a solution has to happen soon.
(Photos: L- Brine in roadside ditch which ran into a stream about 1,000 feet from where this photo was taken, R- Old Slate Road was heavily brined the day before (Sept. 26, 2017), by Siri Lawson.)
(Comments on this article can be sent to: PaEnviroDigest@gmail.com.)
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