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Former Pa. DEP secretary wants spreading conventional oil, gas wastewater on roads to remain illegal

A wet road in a forest with houses visible.
PA Environment Digest Blog
Warren County resident Siri Lawson took this photo of Logan Road on May 4, 2024 to document oil and gas wastewater dumping.

Spreading wastewater from conventional oil and gas drilling on dirt and gravel roads to keep dust down is a longtime practice in Pennsylvania, one that some say has to stop. Conventional oil and gas drilling is different from hydraulic fracturing or fracking. It uses vertical drilling.

David Hess, former Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, has been writing about this industry in his blog. Hess provided testimony for an April State Senate hearing in favor of an outright ban on using conventional oil and gas wastewater on roads. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple recently talked with him about the issue.

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Kara Holsopple: Why is oil and gas waste dumped or spread on roads? Is there some kind of perceived benefit? 

David Hess: The benefit to conventional oil and gas well owners is that it’s all but free. They don’t have to pay a thing. All they have to do is go around and collect the wastewater from their various wells, then dump it wherever they want.

There really isn’t any benefit for dumping it on the road. In fact, William Burgos, a professor at Penn State, has done a bunch of studies on what’s in this kind of wastewater. He said at a [Pa.] Senate hearing in April that there really isn’t any benefit at all for the public. There are only downsides of spreading all this contaminated water all over the place indiscriminately with no limitations.

From your perspective, what are the potential health and environmental impacts? 

According to Penn State studies that William Burgos and others have done, there are upwards of 31 different chemicals and constituents in this kind of wastewater. They’ve done extensive testing on it. Twenty-five of those chemicals exceed EPA, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other environmental standards for safety, and that includes for radioactivity. So you have a lot of stuff that’s in this wastewater that’s not good for the environment, not good for aquatic life.

Because it washes off of these roads into waterways?

The wastewater washes off the roads. Also, if they put on dirt and gravel roads, particularly dirt roads, it has a tendency to break up those roads. It makes that road generate more dust, according to the Penn State studies. So it’s not even doing what the well owners say they want to prevent, which is a lot of dust coming off these roads.

How widespread is the practice? How long has it been going on? 

It’s been going on since oil and gas development began in Pennsylvania in 1859. There have been several attempts to try to regulate this practice, including during the Ridge and Schweiker administrations where I served.

We thought we’d developed a good program to regulate this practice in 1996 and 1997, laid out all these requirements that they have to follow, limiting where they could spread, limiting how much they could spread. And as it turned out, they never paid attention to any of it.

In fact, the Department of Environmental Protection just reported this year that 86% of conventional oil and gas well owners never report like they’re supposed to on how much waste they generate and where they dispose of it. That covers over 32,500 wells. That’s a lot of wells, and that’s millions of gallons of wastewater that is unaccounted for in the reporting system.

What happened after 1998? How was it regulated after that or attempted to be regulated after that? 

What happened was people in the oilpatch got sick and tired of them dumping this stuff right in front of their houses, including a woman by the name of Siri Lawson in Warren County. She appealed an approval that DEP granted to one of these wastewater haulers because they were dumping stuff going right by their house, and she was having very severe health impacts as a result of it.

So, she appealed the process the department was using to the Environmental Hearing Board, the first step in the appeal process. The result of that was there was a settlement of that appeal, not a decision, but a settlement between her and the Department of Environmental Protection. The Department of Environmental Protection oil and gas program said they would not issue any further approvals for wastewater dumping on roads until they had some sort of formal permit process. So from the oil and gas program point of view, they had a moratorium in place.

But the conventional oil gas guys went over to the waste program within DEP. This was sort of a left hand, right hand kind of issue. They have a program called a co-product determination. I don’t want to throw a lot of lingo at you, but it was a process where someone can do an extensive evaluation of their material that would otherwise be a waste and say, look, my waste is just like this other thing that serves as a raw material for something else, and it can be used in a manufacturing process or somewhere else.

So they went through that route. But the weakness, the loophole there is they were supposed to, according to the regulations, do this extensive evaluation. But that evaluation never gets submitted to the DEP unless DEP asks for it.

When DEP finally asked for it about two years ago, what they discovered was there was no extensive evaluation. There was next to nothing. Some of them just sent in letters from townships that said we like getting this free waste to dump on our roads. So DEP has not approved any of these uses for this waste.

As a result, it’s still illegal to dump. Now, the interesting thing is DEP, in its regulations covering the shale gas industry, banned the road spreading of their wastewater, which Penn State studies have shown is almost exactly the same as the conventional industry wastewater.

What’s happening now in the state legislature over this issue?

The Senate had the first-ever hearing on the issue on April 17. In the House, Representative [Greg] Vitali [D., Delaware County], the majority chair of the House Environmental Committee, announced his intent to introduce a bill to ban this practice of wastewater dumping indiscriminately on roads.

About 20 minutes after Representative Vitali sent his memo out announcing that he would introduce this ban legislation, [Republican] Representative [Martin] Causer, who’s from Cameron County and a huge supporter of the conventional oil and gas waste industry, announced his intent to introduce a bill to legalize road dumping of this wastewater. So, the issue is certainly being discussed in the House and the Senate, and we will have to see where it goes.

Meanwhile, the DEP is looking at revising its regulations for waste handling in the conventional oil and gas industry, and we’ll have to see whether they ultimately propose to ban it like they did with the shale gas industry. We may know more on that in October, according to what the department said when they come out with some ideas on how they would change the regulations.

The Allegheny Front contacted two groups representing the conventional oil and gas industry but did not receive a response.

Read more from our partners, The Allegheny Front.

Kara Holsopple is the host of The Allegheny Front and reports on regional environmental issues. She began working in radio as a volunteer for Rustbelt Radio, a project of the Pittsburgh Independent Media Center. A lifelong resident of western Pennsylvania, Holsopple received her undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College and earned a Master of Professional Writing from Chatham University. She can be reached at