Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Penn State Center For Dirt & Gravel Road Studies: Road Dumping Of Oil & Gas Wastewater To Control Dust Is Environmentally Unsound Practice

Experts from the
Penn State Center for Dirt and Gravel Road Studies call the road dumping of oil and gas wastewater an “environmentally unsound practice” that can cause water pollution and even damage roads.  

Drilling wastewater is not a material they approve or recommend in their program.

The Center’s experts conduct research and develop best management practices to construct and maintain dirt and gravel roads in ways that reduce sediment and runoff causing water and air pollution.

Steve Bloser, Executive Director of the Center, and Eric Chase, a Center Researcher, outlined some of key findings from Penn State’s research and the Center’s experience on the road dumping of oil and gas wastewater-- brines-- on dirt and gravel roads in an interview August 24.

Drilling Wastewater Not Effective

“The [recent Penn State] paper speaks for itself in terms of the research to date.  High sodium [oil and gas well] brines are not very effective [at dust suppression],” said Eric Chase from the Center and one of those involved in a recent Penn State study on the effectiveness of drilling wastewater as a dust suppressant.  “I think that’s been a well known fact in the industry, because when you look at commercial brines that are used for roads, they are using calcium and magnesium brines… that work much better than sodium.”

“A lot of the brines in Pennsylvania have high sodium so they tend not to be as effective,” said Chase.  “Any liquid you put on the roads is going to suppress dust for a little while, right?  But, the fact of the matter is the high sodium brines are just not very effective.”

“Yea, it does suppress dust, but so would plain water for a while without all the potential side effects,” said Bloser.

[Note: DEP banned the road dumping of drilling wastewater from unconventional shale gas wells, but road dumping wastewater from conventional oil and gas wells is still allowed as a “beneficial use.”  Read more here.]

Can Damage Dirt & Gravel Roads

“Long term, there is some question [that brine] can actually have a detrimental effect on your dirt and gravel road,” said Chase.  “We do know just putting rock salt on your road in winter tends to cause you to have a longer mud season and tends to hold water in there.

“In the summer time there is a question whether the sodium… can actually help break up the clays instead of binding them potentially adding dust load just as salt on the roads,” said Chase.  “We allude to that in the paper that high sodium might actually cause roads to be a little dustier once they dry.

“There are some concerns how well your road would hold up long term if you’re putting a lot of sodium on your roads,” said Chase.

Not Environmentally Sound Practice

“From a truly programmatic aspect to bring products into the program that can be paid for with program dollars, brine would not qualify because we use the [EPA] secondary drinking water standard for chlorides,” said Chase.  “[The] drinking water standard for chlorides is 250 parts per million, the brines we’re talking about are tens of thousands of parts per million of chloride.”

“There are also concerns from the environmentally sensitive standpoint about what is in those brines,” said Chase.  “We know there are some heavy metals [lead, arsenic], some radiation, oil and gas residues in them.

“It’s not something we would be willing to put on our roads anyways,” said Chase.

“The brines [also] wouldn’t pass for radioactivity, because we also have a standard for that,”  said Chase. 

“The [Dirt and Gravel Road ] Program doesn’t buy a lot of dust suppressant,” said Steve Bloser. “We maintain the emphasis on drainage and streams because no matter what you do [for dust suppression, it’s] temporary.”

“Of the $28 million the Commission gets for the program, probably less than $50,000 goes for dust suppression every year, if I had to guess,” said Bloser.

“We want to make double-sure we’re not putting anything out there on the road that causes harm,” said Bloser.

“Once we complete a project the township is free to do what they want, so if they are going out and spreading brine on our brand new DSA [driving surface aggregate] roads, we don’t have a say in what they do after the project is done,” said Bloser.

“I don’t think anyone would want them to go out and throw a bunch of brine on our high quality road surface because of the potential negative environmental benefit to the material itself,” said Bloser.

“If you could treat that radioactivity, take out heavy metals you make it more environment friendly, [but] it’s still going to have a very high chloride content, which is something that as a program we are concerned about because we're looking at the health of our streams and aquifers and chlorides are a pollutant,” said Bloser.

“I can’t imagine a scenario where the program would be paying for using brines any time in the future,” said Bloser.

Proper Construction Leads To Less Dust

Following the construction and maintenance practices recommended by the Center will reduce the amount of dust produced by dirt and gravel road use.

“We use a lot of driving surface aggregate [in our projects] and we’ve done studies that show not only does it produce less dust, but it’s less mobile dust-- bumper dust-- that comes up and down and doesn't hang in the air like the clays do,” said Chase.  “The use of [driving surface aggregate] will reduce dust for years and years and is less dusty than the aggregate typically used in the Northwest part of the state.  They have very dusty [road] materials up there.”

“A good DSA will perform much better than the native surface road materials used [in the Northwest],” said Chase.

Why Won’t Townships Change Practices?

“We have 20,000 miles of [dirt and gravel] roads out there and if we’d focus on dust that’s pretty much all we’d do,” said Chase.  “And [dust suppression] is temporary.”

“With respect to water drainage, we are seeing a lot of uptake of people doing our practices with their own money,” said Bloser. “That’s really where you see the biggest benefit of the program long term.”

“One of the biggest barriers is turnover of [local officials],” said Bloser.  “It’s a thankless job that doesn’t pay very much so there’s a lot of cycling through.”

“Money is a factor too.  A lot of stuff we [the Center] does costs more upfront, but saves money in the long run,” said Bloser.  “But that’s hard to see when your annual budget is $30,000 and one of our projects is $40,000.”

“The [oil and gas] producers have this water and it’s a liability sitting on their property and they have to do something with it,” said Bloser. “This gives them the opportunity to get rid of it for free or get paid for it.”

Bloser said he’s heard producers say at DCED’s PA Grade Crude [Oil] Development Advisory Council meetings up to 25 percent of a conventional oil and gas driller’s waste stream is spread on roads.

“There’s your driver and they’re good salesmen,” said Bloser.  “When you get something like that for free, there’s a reason.”

“Some of the producers will drive right out and apply it for you, so some of the townships are pretty hands off,” said Chase.

DEP Hasn’t Ordered Dust Control

In their long experience with the Center, neither Steve Bloser nor Eric Chase were aware of instances where the Department of Environmental Protection has “ordered” a township to control dust from dirt and gravel roads.

“Obviously industry is regulated in terms of dust levels, but I’ve never heard of DEP going after townships,” said Eric Chase.

They said it is usually a complaint-driven thing from the residents to a township.

Lab” vs. “Real World” Studies

The next study that’s due out from Penn State by the end of the year will provide more information on the environmental impact of road dumping of oil and gas wastewater on dirt and gravel roads.

Although not at liberty to describe any of the results, Eric Chase said, the study created a three by nine foot roadbed at a five percent slope and did leaching experiments with a variety of different brines and products.

The Penn State studies have been criticized as “lab” studies and not “real world” studies by some.

“The methodologies are absolutely sound,” said Chase.  “You definitely have more control over the environment in the lab.  It’s much easier to replicate what you’re doing when you’re testing different products, versus the field test where you’re beholden to the weather, beholden to how well the applicator truck can apply the product over long distances.”

“One of the reasons we built the roadbed and did the experiment was to scale up from the laboratory,” added Chase.  “Having the road material compacted just like you would a road, having the same depth of the driving surface aggregate, using native material from the Northwest, using oil and gas brines from that region, was the next step.”

For more information on proper dirt and gravel road construction and maintenance, visit the Penn State Center for Dirt and Gravel Road Studies website.  The Center also provides training to local officials and road supervisors throughout the year.

Background On Center Program

The Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited first brought the problem of unpaved road runoff into the spotlight in 1991. TU sportsmen in Centre and Potter County State Forests were the driving force behind the developing grassroots effort to reduce sediment pollution from dirt and gravel roads.

A Task Force on Dirt and Gravel Roads was created in 1993 to investigate, research and document the significance of sediment and dust, as well as other forms of water pollution resulting from dirt and gravel road maintenance practices. 

This private-public partnership enlisted members representing nonprofit organizations, businesses and local, state, and federal government agencies.

In the summers of 1996-1998, volunteers from TU went out at their own expense and drove thousands of miles of roads in an effort to identify pollution sites on Pennsylvania's dirt and gravel roads. 

TU inventory volunteers recorded locations where roads were adversely impacting a stream, concentrating on Pennsylvania's High Quality and Exceptional Value watersheds.

The efforts put forth by the volunteers resulted in the identification and assessment of over 900 sites in protected watersheds statewide.  These sites became the basis for creating the Dirt and Gravel Road Maintenance Program.

The Task Force achieved its goal in 1997 when a law (Section 9106 of the PA Vehicle Code) was enacted establishing the Pennsylvania Dirt and Gravel Road Maintenance Program.  

The law provided a non-lapsing annual allocation of $5 Million, with $4 Million going to the State Conservation Commission and $1 million going to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.   Read more here.

In 2013, Act 89 was passed increasing the funding for the Program from $5 Million to $35 Million annually in 2014-15.  The Act dedicates $28 Million of this to the State Conservation Commission, and also mandates that $8 million of that money be used for the maintenance of low-volume paved roads with less than 500 vehicles per day.

The Dirt and Gravel Road Maintenance Program follows a few key concepts including: local control over projects and decision making; education and training to local stakeholders; simplified grant applications; and implementing long term road and environmental improvements.

Click Here for more background.

Related Articles:

-- New Penn State Study Shows Road Dumping Oil & Gas Drilling Wastewater Has Little Dust Suppression Benefit, Contains Pollutants Harmful To Human Health, Agriculture, Aquatic Life

-- DEP To Propose Regulations Allowing Road Dumping Of Conventional Drilling Wastewater Across PA

-- Now On Demand: Webinar- Radioactivity In Fracking - Too Hot To Handle With Scientist/Author Justin Nobel

-- Road Dumping Of Oil & Gas Well Wastewater Is Happening Now In Crawford, Erie, Warren Counties As House Prepares To Take Up Bill This Week To Make It Legal

-- Dangers Posed By Oil & Gas Drilling Wastes, Abandoned Wells + Siri Lawson’s Story From Warren County

-- House Republicans Pass Bill Legalizing Road Dumping Of Conventional Oil & Gas Well Wastewater, Rolling Back Environmental Protection Standards

[Posted: August 25, 2021]  PA Environment Digest

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