On Tuesday, witnesses said fresh road dumping of oil and gas well wastewater occurred outside of Corry in Erie County.
The dumping is believed to be wastewater from conventional oil and gas wells.
All this is happening now when there is supposed to be a moratorium on road dumping of wastewater as a result of a settlement in a 2017 appeal of DEP’s requirements to the Environmental Hearing Board. Read more here.
The only road dumping of oil and gas wastewater that is supposed to be happening is under a co-product determination that allows the use of treated waste that has similar properties to commercial products. Read more here.
A witness said given the volume of road dumping they said is happening now, it is unlikely to all be legal co-product materials.
What Is Road Dumping?
Photos that were part of the 2017-2018 Environmental Hearing Board appeal show the process involved in road dumping. (See photos above from the case with this article.)
Road dumping of oil and gas wastewater on dirt roads involves a vac truck making typically three passes on each section of road using a combination of an open value on the back of the truck and then a blanket pass with a homemade spreader bar that offers no control on the amount of brine spread.
Click Here to see photos from the case. They were taken by the vac truck operator.
DEP Staff Reductions
DEP’s Oil and Gas Management Program cannot fill an estimated 40 positions-- nearly 18 percent of its staff- out of a complement of 226 due to a reduction in revenue from oil and gas drilling permit fees earmarked to fund the program.
These are the staff responsible for enforcing oil and gas drilling-related regulations, including the proper disposal of drilling wastewater.
DEP reported in December it expects a 70 percent decline in revenue from the permit fees this year because of the general downturn in the natural gas industry over the last two years primarily due to natural gas prices. New fees increases were just effective on August 1, 2020. Read more here.
House To Move Bill Legalizing Road Dumping
The bill would not only roll back environmental protection standards for conventional oil and gas wells generally, but would also specifically make road dumping of drilling wastewater legal again.
Gov. Wolf vetoed similar legislation in November. Read more here.
On May 3, the Environmental Defense Fund and the PA Environmental Council wrote to members of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee urging them to vote against House Bill 1144 (Causer-R-Cameron) setting standards for conventional oil and gas drilling because the bill would result in “dramatic reductions to health and environmental protections that are unwarranted and unsafe.” Read more here.
“Instead of adjusting for true differences between conventional and unconventional operations, House Bill 1144 inappropriately shifts the costs and risks inherent in conventional operations to the citizens of the Commonwealth.”
“While we recognize that low commodity prices have hampered the conventional industry, that challenge is wholly unrelated to protection standards. It certainly does not warrant the unraveling of standards that have been in place, and practiced by both the conventional and unconventional industries, for decades.
“EDF and PEC have continually stated our willingness to come to the table and work with the General Assembly, Administration, and conventional industry to develop an appropriate framework.”
Although the bill is full of bad provisions, the group focused on the same issue it focused on in the last session when a similar bill, Senate Bill 790, was making its way through the legislature.
Last year’s bill would have reinstated the practice of road spreading of toxic, radioactive drilling waste on unpaved roads. This year’s bill, and its Senate counterpart, Senate Bill 534, would allow the waste to be spread on paved roads, as well.
Last year, the group presented a letter to the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee the morning of its consideration of Senate Bill 790. The Committee amended the bill to remove the road spreading provision.
The letter updates and appends that letter to express that much attention has been given to the contents of drilling waste since last year and concerns for potential impacts to water and air quality, human health, and safety have only increased.
“The people spoke clearly last year and the Committee, and ultimately Governor Wolf who vetoed the bill he rightly considered to be a bad bill even without the road spreading provision, heard them. This time, the House is moving this bill very quickly. With only a short time to circulate the letter and petition, we exceeded the number of signatures we’d gathered last time. Let’s face it, ‘I’d like toxic, radioactive waste to be spread on the roads where I live,’ said no one ever,” said Karen Feridun, Founder of Berks Gas Truth.
This bill and its Senate companion-- Senate Bill 534 (Hutchinson-R-Venango)-- were introduced as a follow up to action by the General Assembly to kill DEP’s final updated conventional drilling regulations in 2016 because the industry thought they were too strict.
The law then created the PA Grade Crude Development Advisory Council, made up of all industry-related individuals, that was supposed to “advise” DEP on development a new update to the conventional drilling regulations, but so far no draft regulations have been discussed by the Council since it was created in 2016.
DEP said in September it plans to move ahead with developing updated regulations covering conventional drilling since “legislative discussions have not resulted in a viable product….” Read more here.
DEP has been reviewing draft conventional drilling regulations with the Council and other groups for the last several months.
Road Dumping Of Drilling Wastewater
Of particular concern are provisions related to legalizing the road dumping of drilling wastewater from conventional operations.
The House removed those provisions before sending the bill to the Governor last year, but they are back again in the new bills.
As a result of a 2017 appeal to the Environmental Hearing Board, DEP’s Oil and Gas Program imposed a moratorium on all road dumping of wastewater from wells in the state in 2018.
However, the dumping of wastewater from oil and gas wells on roads is still authorized under the DEP Waste Management Program under a co-product determination which allows the use of waste that has similar properties to commercial products as if it was that product.
While DEP told the Citizens Advisory Council in January 2019 they have no plans to develop a regulation or permit to authorize the road spreading of wastewater from wells, DEP and the Pennsylvania Grade Crude (Oil) Development Advisory Council have been in discussions on the issue most of last year and this year.
Recent research by Penn State and others has shown the road spreading of wastewater from wells as a dust suppressant is not only not effective, but contaminates the roads and wash sediment and pollutants into nearby streams.
There has also been other research pointing to not only environmental but also health impacts from using oil and gas well wastewater for dust control. Click Here for a summary.
Another recent study found that between 1991 and 2017, 240.4 million gallons of wastewater from conventional oil and gas wells were applied to roads, according to DEP records.
A report released by Earthworks in September documented how 380 million barrels of Pennsylvania oil and gas drilling wastewater (conventional and unconventional) was disposed of, including by road dumping.
The 2019 Annual Report of the Crude (Oil) Development Advisory Council contains a special section devoted to the issue of oil and gas production water issues, including the goal of reinstating the road spreading program, leaving no doubt about their political intentions.
On April 22 of this year, conventional drilling industry representatives on the PA Grade Crude (Oil) Development Advisory Council said their number one priority was finding ways of disposing of drilling wastewater, including allowing road dumping.
Road Dumping Anywhere
The Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment last year released a map showing unpaved roads in Pennsylvania, each of which could become new dumpsites, if the General Assembly passes these legalizing the road dumping of conventional oil and gas drilling wastewater.
The primary areas to be affected would be unpaved dirt and gravel roads anywhere there is conventional oil and gas drilling in the state.
Click Here to zoom in on the Penn State map to find your house.
(Photos: From the 2017-18 appeal of DEP’s requirements covering road dumping of oil and gas wastewater.)
Related Articles - Conventional Drilling Legislation:[Posted: May 22, 2021] PA Environment Digest