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

By Siri Lawson, Farmington Township, Warren County

The oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania produces hundreds of millions of gallons of unusable wastewater and production fluids annually.  This figure may be low.

Recently released findings from Duke University state water usage [nationwide] per drilled well may have been underestimated by 770 percent. Correspondingly, unusable brine fluids may have been underestimated by 1,440 percent.

Duke University states if drilling picks up, these numbers could multiply 50 times over.

Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry used the state’s dirt roads as a dump site for their wastewater until 2018.  Dirt roads were being inundated with brine.

My township was among those that had allowed catastrophic over-brining.  In 2017, it became necessary to pursue legal action to get it stopped.

The PaDEP [Department of Environmental Protection] initiated a surprise, but welcome statewide ban on the road spreading of oil and gas wastewater about halfway through legal action (Environmental Hearing Board 2017-051-B).

That allowed the Pennsylvania Legislature to step into the gap and introduce House Bill 2154 [Causer-R-Cameron] and Senate Bill 1088 [Hutchinson-R-Venango] to benefit the oil and gas industry.  These bill would have reinstated the use of Commonwealth dirt roads as dump sites for oil and gas wastewater.

2018 passed without the PaDEP brining ban being lifted either legislatively or by regulation. 2019 awaits a resolution.

Real scientific, legal, environmental and health questions complete against what has become a monetarily convenient and shockingly short-sighted disposal give-away to the energy production industry.

I have been called a “fear-monger” and believer in “fake” science for my opposition to dirt road brining.

My township is all about hills and water.  Expert reports prepared for my lawsuit showed the guidelines the DEP uses to allow dirt road brine spreading are monumentally disconnected from real-time hydrological and topographical field conditions in Farmington Township.

Hydrologically, it is impossible to avoid massive collateral contamination from road spreading of brine.  Topographically, percent-grade analysis maps proved neither the DEP nor the township knew how steep township roads were.

Brine haulers have been required to obtain yearly plan approvals from the DEP in order to road-spread brine fluids.  One mandate, which is impossible to enforce, is that all wastwaters come from shallower “conventional” hydrocarbon producing formations and not the deeper “unconventional” shale layers.

Another unenforced mandate is the required submission of a very limited chemical analysis on the brine. 

My lawsuit compared the test results submitted by haulers authorized to spread in Farmington Township to the known parameters of Marcellus Shale.  The two were then graphed.

Farmington Township results labeled “conventional” dramatically exceeded results coming from “unconventional” shale wastewater test samples.

Chlorides spread on the roads in my township routinely extended upwards of 73,000 mg/l.  That figure is 317 times greater than the concentration the DEP states is toxic to aquatic life. (“A Hydrologic Case Study of PA Brine Spreading Practice,” 2018 Hydroquest)

In 2018, Penn State noted salt concentrations in brine can be so high they require 1600 dilutions just to reach drinking water standards.

Dirt road residents are told oil and gas wastewater is beneficial to the dirt roads.  We are told if brine is spread on our roads, dust will be suppressed and the road will be stabilized.

A noted soil scientist took an in-depth and now published review of what happens to a dirt road when it is brined.

Soil science refutes the claim that brine suppresses dust.  The physical and chemical properties of oil and gas wastewater cause the particles and layers of a dirt road to destabilize.  Widespread road degradation results.

Immediately after brining, the road’s travel surface becomes slippery and sloppy. Wet weather makes brined roads nearly impassable.  The roads fill with surface washing and potholes.

Dry weather causes brined roads to develop a concrete-like surface veneer that friates into choking clouds of toxically enriched fine particulate dust.  In fact, “... it is very likely the dust produced from just a single application of brine would exceed action levels or cleanup standards set by the EPA or DEP…” (“Oil and Gas Well Brines For Dust Control- Part 1: Ineffectiveness” Dr. Bryce Payne, ESJ 2018)

We have learned oil and gas wastewater is radioactive.  Surface waters and stream sediments below waste treatment plants designated competent to treat brine for disposal have been found to be 650 times more radioactive than those above the facility.  Some exceed the radioactivity levels that required disposal at federally designated waste disposal sites. (2018, Nicholas School of Environment, Duke University “Radioactivity Persists in Pennsylvania Stream Sediments.”)

Research projects from Penn State give pause to dirt road disposal of oil and gas wastewater.  Penn State found brine carries significant radioactivity.  They found oil and gas wastewater readily migrates from the road surface it is applied to. 

Their research documented long term bioaccumulation in aquatic life such as fresh water mussels and water fleas.  Penn State also raised the alarm that that exposure to oil and gas brine could have a negative impact on human health.

Semantics, or word-play, has become the lifeblood of the official dog-chased-tail debate over disposal of oil and gas wastewater on dirt roads.

In late summer of 2018, several roads in Northwest Pennsylvania appeared to be heavily brined. That fact was confirmed by PaDEP.

In recent years, entrepreneurs have begun extracting and marketing brine fluids from hydrocarbon wells no longer capable of oil and gas production.

Promotional claims state, “this brine does not contain any harmful chemicals or oil often found in gas well brine…”  (LS-25 Fact Sheet, Seneca Mineral Company)

Calling these brine fluids “naturally occurring” “...that is pumped from the ground to our storage tanks and then delivered directly to our customers.”  (LS-25 Fact Sheet, Seneca Mineral Company)

Word-play has allowed these wastewaters to be re-labeled as a “product.”  Designation as a “product” allows these particular brines to escape PaDEP regulation and avoid being affected by the 2018 statewide brine ban. (2019 Minutes DEP Citizens Advisory Council).

Traditional oil and gas producers are also hoping that deflection and semantics will allow their wastewaters to change their physical and chemical nature.  Product, co-product, co-product definitions, co-product determinations, commodity, processed, similarity, stakeholder, benign ancient sea water.

Northwest Pennsylvania is littered with hydrocarbon wells that are “watered out,” no longer capable of fossil fuel production. “Under solid waste management regulation, if a waste product mimics an intentionally produced product that does not otherwise present harm to the environment, that waste product can be deemed a co-product and used in the same manner.” (2019 DEP Citizens Advisory Council minutes).

This is a loophole and opportunity that oil and gas operators are evaluating. (2019 DEP Citizens Advisory Council minutes).

Most ominously, it is stated in these same minutes, that “The Department has not noted any environmental impact from the use of brine as a dust suppressant.”

On December 8, 2018, the oil and gas industry placed a full page ad in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.  The ad was titled, “The Power Of Partners.”

Twenty-six energy companies formed a partnership in 2017 with the stated goal of improving their environmental footprint.  A year later there were 52 “partners” with names recognizable to all Western Pennsylvanians.

In print, these companies committed to taking action to using “best practices” to responsibly develop essential oil and gas resources.  Implied was the oil and gas industry would use their great ability to innovate to avoid great destruction.

I would say collectively to the above Energy Partners, the rest of the oil and gas industry, politicians, township supervisors and the PaDEP: by allowing Pennsylvania’s dirt roads to become a disposal location for oil and gas wastewater, you have dug a very deep hole.

That you continue to fight to do so is beyond comprehension.  Great innovation should bring with it great responsibility.

The oil and gas industry has the money, the power and this ability to enact positive change.  Disposing of oil and gas wastewater without compounding harm would be a terrific place to start.

[Note: Scott Perry, DEP Deputy Secretary for Oil and Gas Management, told DEP’s Citizens Advisory Council on January 22 DEP currently has no plans to develop a regulation or permit to authorize the use of brine as a dust suppressant and have not issued any new authorizations since the appeal to the Environmental Hearing Board case was dismissed after DEP agreed to implement a ban on new authorizations.  He said DEP has not noted any environmental impact from the use of brine as a dust suppressant. He added there continues to be significant public interest in those areas that have historically used brine for dust suppressant to continue to use it. While there has no official action by DEP, discussions are ongoing with the Crude Oil Development Advisory Council on the issue.

[However, Perry said brine from Seneca Mineral [in Erie] is still being used for de-icing and dust suppression purposes because the brine the company produces from its wells is considered a product-- LS 25-- under the beneficial use provisions of the state Solid Waste Management Act.  He said DEP does not require an application for the use but can request the product determination materials and evaluate whether the material metts a product definition.  He added conventional well operators are evaluating that opportunity. From CAC January 22 meeting minutes.

[On March 21, DEP told the members of the Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board that they plan to included updated requirements covering the spreading of brine on roads in the next draft of the Chapter 78 oil and gas regulations on conventional drilling operations.]

(Photos: L- Brine in a 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.)

Related Story:

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

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