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Researchers find spreading drilling wastewater on Pa. roads can lead to harmful runoff

marcellus_shale_drilling_fracking_natural_gas.jpg
Keith Srakocic
/
AP

Penn State researchers recently briefed a state advisory board on studies that found the common practice of using wastewater from oil and gas drilling to keep dust down on unpaved roads is causing more harm than good.

Wastewater from oil and gas drilling has been used as a cheap dust suppressant in rural Pennsylvania for years.

But wastewater can contain toxic chemicals that run off those roads.

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To test how much, Penn State scientists built a series of gravel roads in a lab and treated each of them with one of three wastewaters or commercially available dust suppressants. Then they simulated a rain storm to see what washed off.

“It’s proportional to the concentration that you apply to the road, so that’s an important conclusion: basically all of this stuff is getting washed off,” said study co-author Bill Burgos during a presentation to the Department of Environmental Protection’s Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board.

Contaminants such as salts, metals, and radioactive elements found in the runoff were at levels higher than what’s considered healthy for people and the environment.

Burgos, a professor of environmental engineering, said the runoff might be an acceptable trade-off, if the treatment kept dust down.

“The bad news for the oil and gas produced waters is that they were little to no more effective than rainwater,” he said.

That means contaminants that aren’t washed off can be stirred up in dust that people living nearby could breathe in.

DEP stopped approving plans for wastewater spreading on roads in 2018, after a woman in Warren County made a complaint with the Environmental Hearing Board. DEP said it could not authorize brine be disposed or beneficially used under the Solid Waste Management Act without a permit. DEP can still allow the practice if the wastewater meets certain criteria.

DEP records show operators continue to dump the brines.

Eighteen companies reported disposing of more than 580,000 gallons of drilling wastewater by road spreading in 2021, according to DEP’s Oil and Gas Waste Reporting Database.

DEP’s website lists 84 municipalities in 13 counties that allow road spreading as “waste facilities.”

The Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association has disputed that brines are ineffective as a road treatment.

It supports legislation that would allow conventional drillers to spread wastewater on roads legally again. That bill passed the state House in 2021. It has not moved in the Senate, and Gov. Tom Wolf opposes it.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition says unconventional operators recycle 90 percent of wastewater to frack new wells and inject the rest deep underground.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.