The Lick Run Road in Licking County, PA, just north of Williamsport, is part of approximately 25,000 miles of dirt or gravel roads in the state. (famartin/CC BY-SA4.0)
A long-awaited health study commissioned by Pennsylvania environmental officials examined the practice of dispersing effluent from traditional gas and oil wells on thousands of miles of rural dirt roads in the state. Researchers concluded that the practice does not effectively control dust and poses a threat to the environment and human health.
The state’s Environmental Protection Department has yet to act based on those findings, but said the study’s impact would be “immediate, large and rapid.”
William Burgos, a professor of environmental engineering at Penn State, said, “While we must be willing to accept the trade-off between the benefits of dust suppression and the lack of environmental impact, these research findings offer only downsides.” University and one of the lead authors of the study.
After a legal challenge to the practice in 2018 over environmental and health concerns, the DEP temporarily banned the spread of wastewater from conventional oil and gas wells on approximately 25,000 miles of dirt and gravel roads in the state. The spill was never allowed with sewage from wells employing hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking.
But for more than half a century, saline sewage spills from traditional oil and gas wells provided an inexpensive way for industry to dispose of a by-product, while also costing the community the expense of summer dust control and winter road freezing. Twenty-one of the state’s 67 counties had permitted sewage spills on rural roads prior to the temporary ban. At the national level, 12 states have approved the exercise.
Approximately 240 million gallons of drilling fluid spilled onto Pennsylvania streets between 1991 and 2017, according to DEP records. Industry leaders have long maintained that the spread had no adverse consequences.
For the independent study commissioned by DEP, Penn State researchers conducted a series of laboratory experiments to test dust generation and suppression. They also measured the chemical composition of the wastewater and studied its runoff effects. The effluent samples were from conventional wells received confidentially from the Western Pennsylvania Oil Service Companies.
The results showed that wastewater was not necessarily any more effective than rainwater at dust control, as its high sodium content does not allow street dust to bind to the material. In fact, the study states, “Sodium can destabilize gravel roads and increase long-term road maintenance costs.”
The investigation also revealed health and environmental concerns.
The study concludes that increased concentrations of pollutants can pollute nearby water sources. In addition to increasing the salinity of freshwater, some simulations show that the water contains heavy metals — such as barium, strontium, lithium, iron and manganese — in amounts that exceed human health standards.
A truck donates wastewater from a conventional oil or gas well on a Pennsylvania highway for free before the practice closes in 2018.
PA Environmental Digest
Some tests also found radioactive radium, a carcinogen, although often in lower concentrations.
In response to the study, the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association states that there have been no reports of adverse effects from using “salt water” on roads.
For practical reasons, “for practical reasons,” said association president Daniel J. Weaver, “many small communities in Northwest Pennsylvania with limited resources and dirt roads have had city officials using saltwater for dust control for years and have had no impact on.” the environment or wildlife reported. ,
The DEP said it will host a presentation on the study’s findings with its Technical Advisory Council on Oil and Gas and may propose new rules for the spread of sewage by mid-July.
the challenge of spotting mistakes
The study wasn’t the only setback for the future use of oil and gas effluents on rural roads.
Even after the 2018 moratorium, the DEP allowed drills to disperse wastewater if its composition was similar to that of commercial dust suppressants.
A review of state records by the Better Path Coalition environmental group found that 29 drilling companies used loopholes to spill 2.3 million gallons between 2018 and 2020. Twenty-one of them did not submit a state-required analysis of their wastewater. Of the eight, the group said, testing did not show they qualified for an exemption.
The DEP agreed with the group’s findings and said it would review the applications and take punitive action against violators if any were found. “The DEP agrees that the submissions are inadequate and will be reviewed and will take enforcement action as necessary,” an agency spokesman said.
The department has advised 18 municipalities in four counties not to allow road application exemptions until the DEP reviews the applications.
Another wrinkle may affect the State Office of the Attorney General. An adviser to conventional oil and gas operators told the state’s Grad Crude Development Advisory Council in April that a special agent for the attorney general’s office was interviewing operators and advisers in connection with the exemptions.
That said a spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office BayJournal He could neither confirm nor deny that the public order office is investigating a possible illegal discharge of sewage.
Pennsylvania’s conventional oil and gas wells are also being inspected for abandoned wells that have not been plugged as required by law to prevent pollution.
DEP’s initial list of abandoned wells that will receive $400 million in federal plugging funding includes 7,300 wells currently listed as active with identified owners.
In response, the DEP said the list contains some errors and the department will try to identify which wells belong to those who can be held responsible.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club filed a request for records under the state’s right-to-know the law, noting that more than 4,270 violators’ notices were sent to drill contractors to exit oil and gas wells without closure. The Sierra Club claimed that the industry practice was routine.
The Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board is considering a petition to increase deposit amounts for both conventional and unconventional oil and gas wells to save taxpayers the cost of shutting down wells if they are abandoned.