By Ad Crable
A long-awaited health study commissioned by Pennsylvania environmental officials examined the practice of spreading sewage from conventional oil and gas drilling on thousands of miles of rural dirt roads in the state. The researchers concluded that this practice does not effectively control dust and poses environmental and human health hazards.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has yet to act on those findings, but said the study’s impact will be “immediate, significant, and intense.”
“While we must be prepared to accept the trade-offs between the benefits of dust suppression and the drawbacks of environmental impacts, this research found that oil and sewage are only downsides,” said William Burgos, professor of environmental engineering at Penn State. University and one of the lead authors of the study.
After a 2018 legal challenge to the practice on environmental and health grounds, the DEP temporarily banned most sewage spreading from conventional oil and gas drilling on the approximately 25,000 miles of dirt and gravel roads in the state. Landfarming has never been permitted with wastewater from wells using hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracturing.
But for more than half a century, spreading salty wastewater from conventional oil and gas wells has been a cheap way for industry to get rid of a byproduct, while cutting costs. municipal dedusting in summer and road de-icing in winter. Twenty-one of the state’s 67 counties allowed sewage application on rural roads before the temporary ban. Nationally, 12 states have permitted the practice.
According to DEP records, about 240 million gallons of drilling wastewater was spilled on Pennsylvania roads from 1991 to 2017. Industry officials have long maintained that the spread had no ill consequences.
For the independent DEP-commissioned study, Penn State researchers conducted a series of laboratory experiments to test dust generation and suppression. They also measured the chemical composition of wastewater and explored its runoff effects. Wastewater samples were from conventional drilling operations obtained in confidence from oil service companies in western Pennsylvania.
The results showed that wastewater was essentially no more effective than rainwater at controlling dust because its high sodium content does not allow road dust to bind to the material. In fact, according to the study, “sodium can destabilize gravel roads and increase long-term road maintenance costs.”
The investigation also revealed health and environmental concerns.
High levels of contaminants could pollute nearby water sources, the study concluded. In addition to increasing the salinity of fresh water, the water in some simulations contained heavy metals – such as barium, strontium, lithium, iron and manganese – at levels exceeding human health standards. .
Some tests have also found radioactive radium, a carcinogen, although often in low concentrations.
In response to the study, the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association says there have been no reports of ill effects from using what it calls “salt water” on the roads.
“In practice,” said association president Daniel J. Weaver, “municipal government officials in many small northwestern Pennsylvania communities with limited resources and miles of unpaved roads have years of experience using salt water for dust control and have reported no impacts to the environment or wildlife.
The DEP said it would host a presentation on the study’s findings with its oil and gas technical advisory board and possibly propose new sewage spreading regulations by mid-July.
Contested Spread Loophole
The study was not the only blow to the future use of oil and gas wastewater on rural roads.
Even after the 2018 moratorium, the DEP allowed drillers to apply wastewater if it was similar in composition to commercially available dusters.
A review of state records by environmental group Better Path Coalition found that 29 drilling companies used the loophole to spread 2.3 million gallons between 2018 and 2020. Twenty-one of those companies did not submitted for testing of their wastewater, as required by the state. Of the eight who did, tests did not show they were eligible for the exemption, according to the group.
The DEP agreed with the group’s findings and said it would review the claims and take enforcement action against violators, if appropriate. “The DEP agrees that the submissions are inadequate and is continuing to review, and will take enforcement action as needed,” an agency spokesperson said.
The department has informed 18 municipalities in four counties that they cannot allow the exemption for the highway application unless the DEP verifies the applications.
Another wrinkle may involve the state attorney general’s office. A consultant for conventional oil and gas operators revealed to the state’s Grade Crude Development Advisory Council in April that a special agent from the attorney general’s office interviewed operators and consultants about the exemptions.
A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office told the Bay Journal that he could neither confirm nor deny that the office was investigating the possible illegal sewage spreading.
Pennsylvania conventional oil and gas drillers also face scrutiny for abandoned wells that have not been plugged as required by law to prevent pollution.
DEP’s initial list of abandoned wells that would receive $400 million in federal funding for plugging includes 7,300 wells that are currently listed as active, with owners identified.
In response, the DEP said the list contained errors and that the department would attempt to identify wells whose owners could be held responsible.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club filed for registration under the state’s Right to Know Act and found more than 4,270 notices of violation sent to drillers for abandoning oil and gas wells. gases without clogging them. The Sierra Club claimed the industry practice was common.
The Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board is considering a petition to increase bail amounts for conventional and unconventional oil and gas wells to save taxpayers the cost of plugging when they are abandoned.
Ad Crable is a Pennsylvania-based writer for the Bay Journal. Contact him at [email protected]. This article first appeared in the June 2022 issue of the Bay Journal and was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.