Monday, October 25, 2021

The Science Says: Spreading Conventional Drilling Wastewater On Dirt & Gravel Roads Can Harm Aquatic Life, Poses Health Risks To Humans - And It Damages The Roads

Millions of gallons of conventional oil and gas drilling wastewater is being dumped indiscriminately on Pennsylvania’s dirt and gravel roads every year.

Shouldn’t someone regulate that?

Major studies reported in peer-reviewed journal articles have concluded spreading wastewater from conventional oil and gas drilling on dirt and gravel roads can harm aquatic life, poses health risks to humans and damages the roads.

According to these studies, conventional wastewater contains harmful contaminants like lead, radioactive radium, bromine, barium, radioactive strontium, chromium, cadmium, arsenic, copper, benzine, Diesel-Range organics and Gasoline-range organics.  Read more here.

Today, the road “spreading” of oil and gas wastewater on dirt roads typically involves a vac truck making three or more 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. See Photos Here.   Read more here.

In 1996, a DEP report said 4,000,000 gallons of drilling wastewater was used for dust control on unpaved roads.  Read more here.

Later reports found from 1991 to 2017 over 240.4 million gallons of conventional drilling wastewater was dumped on dirt and gravel roads-- over 235.4 million gallons in Pennsylvania alone or an average of 9,000,000 gallons a year.  Read more here.

A Penn State study recently concluded, “Spreading O&G [oil and gas] wastewater on roads can harm aquatic life and pose health risks to humans.”  Read more here.

“... O&G wastewaters transported from the road to surface water after rain events are likely the major potential threat to aquatic toxicity.” Read more here.

“These wastewaters could require up to 1,600 times dilution to reach drinking water quality standards or approximately 100 times dilution to reduce acute toxicity to aquatic organisms,” according to the Penn State study.  Read more here.

Another study concluded, “Anticipatable levels of toxic contaminants added to road dust by a single application of OGB [oil and gas brine] are at, or well above, relevant cleanup levels. It is reasonable, therefore, to conclude health risks are appreciably increased by exposure to dust from OGB-treated roads.”  Read more here.

“The spreading of O&G [oil and gas] wastewaters on roads could be a significant contributor of inorganic and organic micropollutants to the environment and has been largely ignored in environmental studies on O&G development.”  Read more here

“...[B]rines that are used for road maintenance activities such as deicing and dust suppression raise concerns about increasing the salinity of proximate water resources, because once applied, much of the salt becomes mobile and travels offsite with surface and groundwater which has negative consequences for agriculture, infrastructure, and aquatic life.”  Read more here.

Other studies have found little difference in basic, potentially harmful contaminants in wastewater from conventional and unconventional (shale) drilling operations. 

[Note: DEP has prohibited the road “spreading” of unconventional drilling wastewater on roads by regulation since 2016.]

“In conclusion, this study shows high concentrations of halides (chloride, bromide and iodine) and ammonium in unconventional flowback and produced waters from the Marcellus and Fayetteville shale plays, as well as conventional oil and gas produced waters from the Appalachian Basin.  [Read more here]

“In addition to the direct impacts to aquatic ecosystems, the disposal and/or accidental release of OGW with elevated levels of halides and NH4 + can promote the formation of toxic brominated and iodinated DBPs in downstream drinking water utilities.”  [Read more here]

A 1985 study released in 2010 by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources found high concentrations of barium in conventional oil and gas brines was the "likely the source of barium contents exceeding the drinking-water limits in some private wells and small municipal water supplies in western Pennsylvania."  [Read more here.]

The study went on to explain, "Contents of barium and strontium are limited by the solubility of sulfates and carbonates but can be relatively high, so that admixture of even small amounts of the brine with near-surface freshwater can produce barium levels above current limits established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water."  [Read more here.]

Another study also found “produced waters from conventional oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania and New York also have elevated levels of radioactivity, similar to those from the Marcellus Formation.”  Read more here.

The 2010 DCNR study also found "radium values are high enough that a possible radiation hazard exists, especially where radium could be adsorbed on iron oxides and accumulate in brine tanks."  [Read more here.]

“The release of [radioactive] radium, a known carcinogen, is a potential threat to human health. In Pennsylvania, we found that radioactivity associated with radium released to the environment via road spreading exceeds the radioactivity of radium released by spill events or wastewater treatment plants.”  Read more here.

“Of the 14 samples, I believe the median value was somewhere around 1,200 to 1,300 picocuries of radium per liter—and for perspective, the drinking water standard is 5 picocuries per liter,” said Dr. William Burgos from Penn State, the lead researcher on one of the studies.  . “Even the industrial wastewater standard that is sometimes applied to radioactive fluids is 60 picocuries per liter. In this case, we’re talking 1,260 as a median, so some had considerably more than that.”  Read more here.

“In order to prevent radionuclide accumulation in the environment, we suggest that disposal restrictions should apply to any type of Ra-rich [radium] water, regardless of source, and that current policies differentiating the treatment and disposal of conventional OGW from unconventional OGW should be reconsidered.”  Read more here.

[Note: DEP currently has no limits on how much conventional drilling wastewater can be spread on dirt and gravel roads.  [Read more here.]]

At a September 30 Senate hearing, DEP acknowledged, “the potential for environmental impact from spills or leaks of TENORM contaminated material is real” adding, based on its 2016 study of TENORM and the oil and gas industry, further investigation of roads treated with oil and gas wastewater was needed. [Read more here]

DEP's TENORM study reported higher than background levels of radioactive radium on roads treated with oil and gas wastewater; some samples were as high as three times background. [page 9-11]

A study done on the road “spreading” issue by the Department of Environmental Protection in 1996 said, “The results of this project show that there is a potential for brine to migrate from the roadway and impact ground or surface water quality. In some situations, it may be necessary to use a dust palliative other than brine.”  Read more here.

The study went on to recommend significant changes to the environmental protection standards covering road “spreading” at the time-- none of which are in place now.  Read more here.

It Doesn’t Work/Damages Roads

Not only did studies find spreading conventional drilling wastewater on dirt roads was potentially harmful to human health and the environment, they found it’s not effective as a dust suppressant and actually damages roads.

Dr. William Burgos from Penn State said, “Dust is a significant environmental issue in its own right. Inhaling fine particulates causes problems for people with asthma and causes other sorts of respiratory distress. We just want to make sure that we’re not trading off one environmental problem for another.”  Read more here.

“The very limited available data and more thorough related literature clearly indicate OGB [oil and gas brine] is not an effective dust-control agent (Payne 2018) and has verified environmental and foreseeable health risks when applied at rates currently considered acceptable by state regulators, even without considering that enforcement of state OGB application rate limits is rare.”  Read more here.

“At this time there appears to be no actual measurement data that support the use of OGB [oil and gas brine] as an effective dust-control agent. The very limited available data indicates that OGB cannot be effective unless applied at rates several times the maximum rates state authorities consider acceptable environmental risks.  Read more here.

“Further, examination of the more thorough literature on commercial chloride dust-control agents clearly indicates there is no reason to expect OGB to be an effective dust control agent.  Read more here.

“Due to the effects of sodium ions on behavior of soil clays, typical applications of sodium-rich OGB to unpaved roads can be reasonably expected to increase dustiness and weaken soil structure.”  Read more here.

“It is, therefore, difficult to view the use of OGB on unpaved roads for dust control and road stabilization as anything more than a legacy oil- and gas-well waste-water disposal practice with substantial environmental and foreseeable health risks, especially health risks of exposure to dust from OGB-treated roads (emphasis added).  Read more here.

“Further, it is important to recognize the use of OGB for dust control is an insidious practice in that it is presumed to reduce dust when in most cases it will increase dust, which will lead to the conclusion more OGB is needed.  Read more here.

“Due to the Na [sodium] saturation of road soil after prolonged periods of OGB treatment, it can be anticipated that cessation of the practice will likely result in increased dust and calls for resumption of OGB spreading when that is exactly the wrong course.” Read more here.

A Penn State study released in August found drilling wastewater was three times LESS effective than the commercial products it was compared to, and it easily washed off roadways into nearby streams and fields and contains pollutants that can negatively affect human health, agriculture and aquatic life. Read more here.

The study concluded, “Road spreading of OGPW [oil and gas production water] is an established practice that is generating health and efficacy concerns as the practice gains more attention.  Read more here.

“None of the OGPWs assessed [in this study] performed as well as the commercial analogs, CaCl2 or MgCl2.  Read more here.

“If the justification for using OGPW is equivalency with commercial counterparts, evidence points to far less efficacy.”  Read more here.

"Our recommendations for moving forward include setting a limit on radioactivity, reducing the amount of organics, and frankly, testing whether brine even works," said Nathaniel R. Warner, one of the study’s authors from Penn State’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. "If it doesn't work any better than water at suppressing dust, maybe we just don't need to be doing this."  Read more here.

[Note: DEP currently has no limits on spreading conventional drilling wastewater on dirt and gravel roads.  [Read more here.]]

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

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

What’s Next?

Another study by Penn State University and Dr. Williams Burgos is due out in December on the environmental impacts of road “spreading” of conventional drilling wastewater commissioned by the Department of Environmental Protection.

DEP said it would be “following the science” in making decisions on how it will deal with environmentally safe management of conventional drilling wastewater.  The options range from banning the practice to tightly regulating it.

Here’s the recent science, and there’s more saying the same things.

Research Cited Here Includes: 

[Note: This post is not meant to be an exhaustive study of the research on this topic, but highlights significant studies.  Each of these studies, in turn, refer to additional research that helps document their work and serves as a resource for more information.]

-- 2018 Penn State Study Environmental and Human Health Impacts Of Spreading Oil and Gas Wastewater On Roads - T.L. Tasker, et al

-- 2018 Oil and Gas Well Brines For Dust Control On Unpaved Roads - Part 2 - Environmental and Health Impact  - Bryce F. Payne, Jr. PhD

-- 2018 Sources of Radium Accumulation In Stream Sediments Near Disposal Sites In Pennsylvania - Implications for Disposal of Conventional Oil and Gas Wastewater - Nancy E. Lauer, et al

-- 2015. Iodide, Bromide And Ammonium In Hydraulic Fracturing And Oil And Gas Wastewater: Environmental Implications.  Jennifer S. Harkness, et al

-- 2013 Impacts of Shale Gas Wastewater Disposal On Water Quality In Western Pennsylvania. Nathaniel R. Warner, et al

-- 2010 Chemistry and Origin of Oil and Gas Well Brines in Western Pennsylvania. P. Evan Dresel and Arthur W. Rose, Penn State University - DCNR

-- 2018 Oil and Gas Well Brines For Dust Control On Unpaved Roads - Part 1 - Ineffectiveness - Bryce F. Payne, Jr. PhD

-- 2020 Penn State Efficacy Of Oil And Gas Produced Water As A Dust Suppressant - William D. Burgos, et al

-- 1996 Department of Environmental Protection Non-Point Source Report On Roadspreading Of Brine For Dust Control And Road Stabilization

-- 2016 Department of Environmental Protection Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (TENORM) Study Report.


-- Environmental Health News: Radium Has Been Widely Spread On PA Roadways Without Regulations: Study

-- Environmental Monitor: Toxic Potential: Oil And Gas Wastewater On Roads

-- PG:  DEP [Oil & Gas Program] Revokes Permission To Dump Wastewater Brine From Conventional Drilling On Dirt Roads

Related Articles:

-- How The Conventional Oil & Gas Drilling Industry Eliminated Any Restrictions On The Disposal Of Millions Of Gallons Of Its Wastewater On PA’s Dirt & Gravel Roads 

-- 17 Conventional Oil & Gas Drilling Operators Under Review By DEP To Determine If They Comply With Program Allowing Road Dumping Of Drilling Wastewater

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

-- Conventional Oil & Gas Drilling Advisory Council Critical Of DEP For Working With Penn State On Independent Studies Of Road Dumping Drilling Wastewater They Had Been Aware Of Since August, 2020

-- 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: Potential For Environmental Impacts From Spills Or Leaks Of Radioactive Oil & Gas Waste Materials Is Real; Health Dept. Not Aware Of All Chemicals In Oil & Gas Wastewater Making Risk Assessment Difficult

-- 80 Organizations, 1,800+ Concerned Citizens To DEP: Ban Road Dumping Of Drilling Wastewater; Dept. Of Health Unaware Road Dumping Is Occurring

-- 65+ Groups Ask Biden Administration To Reclassify Oil & Gas Drilling Waste As 'Hazardous' To Prevent Road Dumping Of Wastewater And Other Practices

-- Op-Ed: Why Is the General Assembly About To Hurt Us By Authorizing Road Dumping Of Oil & Gas Wastewater?

-- Op-Ed: Will Our Dirt Roads Again Be Used As Dumping Sites For Oil & Gas Well Wastewater

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

-- Earthworks’ New Report, Interactive Map Tracks Disposal Of 380 Million Barrels Of PA Oil & Gas Drilling Wastewater, Including Road Dumping

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

[Posted: October 25, 2021]  PA Environment Digest

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