Study: Sewage drilling in the streets of Pa.  dangerous to human health, the environment

Study: Sewage drilling in the streets of Pa. dangerous to human health, the environment

From Ad Crable

A long-awaited health study commissioned by Pennsylvania environmental officials examined the practice of spreading wastewater from conventional oil and gas drilling on thousands of miles of rural dirt roads in the state. The researchers concluded that the practice does not effectively control dust and poses risks to the environment and human health.

The Department of Environmental Protection has yet to act on those findings, but said the impact of the study would be “immediate, large and severe.”

“While we must be willing to accept the trade-offs between the advantages of dust suppression and the disadvantages of environmental impacts, this research found that oil and sewage provide only disadvantages,” said William Burgos, professor of environmental engineering at Penn State . University and one of the lead authors of the study.

After a legal challenge to the practice in 2018 due to environmental and health concerns, the DEP temporarily banned the spreading of wastewater from conventional oil and gas drilling on the roughly 25,000 miles of dirt and gravel roads in the state. Dispersion with wastewater from wells using hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, has never been permitted.

But for more than half a century, dispersing salty wastewater from conventional oil and gas wells has been a cheap way for industry to get rid of a byproduct while reducing municipal costs for dust control in the summer and road de-icing in the winter. . Twenty-one of the state’s 67 counties allowed sewage to be spread on rural roads before the temporary ban. Nationally, 12 states have allowed the practice.

According to DEP records, about 240 million gallons of drilling wastewater was spread on Pennsylvania roads from 1991 to 2017. Industry officials have long maintained that the spread had no negative consequences.

For the independent study commissioned by the 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 investigated the effects of runoff. The wastewater samples were from contract drilling operations obtained in confidence from oil service companies in western Pennsylvania.

Bad substitute

The results showed that sewage was not substantially more effective than rainwater in controlling dust because its high sodium content does not allow road dust to adhere to the material. In fact, the study noted, “sodium can destabilize gravel roads and increase long-term road maintenance costs.”

The survey also revealed health and environmental concerns.

Elevated pollutant levels could contaminate nearby water sources, the study concluded. In addition to increasing freshwater salinity, the water in some simulations contained heavy metals—such as barium, strontium, lithium, iron, and manganese—at levels that exceeded human health standards.

Some tests 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 adverse effects from using what it calls “brine water” on roads.

“As a practical matter,” said association president Daniel J. Weaver, “municipal government officials in many small communities in northwestern Pennsylvania with limited resources and miles of unpaved roads have years of experience using brine for dust control and have not reports effects on the environment or wildlife.”

The DEP said it will host a presentation of the study’s results with the Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Committee and will likely propose new regulations for wastewater dispersion by mid-July.

The propagation of the gap was disputed

The study wasn’t the only blow to the future use of oil and gas wastewater on rural roads.

Even after the 2018 moratorium, DEP allowed drillers to disperse wastewater if its makeup was similar to commercially available dust suppressants.

A review of state records by the environmental group Better Path Coalition found that 29 drilling companies used the loophole to allocate 2.3 million gallons between 2018 and 2020. Twenty-one of those companies did not submit analyzes of their wastewater, as required by the state. Of the eight that did, tests did not show they qualified for the exemption, according to the team.

The DEP agreed with the panel’s findings and said it would review the applications and take enforcement action against violators if found. “DEP agrees that the submissions are inadequate and continues to review and will take enforcement action as necessary,” an agency spokesman said.

The department has notified 18 municipalities in four counties that they cannot grant the exemption for road applications unless DEP verifies the applications.

Another wrinkle may involve the Attorney General’s Office. A consultant for conventional oil and gas operators disclosed in April to the state’s crude grade development advisory board that a special agent from the attorney general’s office had interviewed operators and consultants related to the exemptions.

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office told the Bay Journal that he could neither confirm nor deny that the office is investigating the possible illegal dumping of sewage.

Check for wells

Pennsylvania’s conventional oil and gas rigs also face scrutiny for abandoned wells that weren’t plugged as required by pollution prevention laws.

The DEP’s initial list of abandoned wells that would receive $400 million in federal plugging funds includes 7,300 wells currently listed as active, with identified owners.

In response, the DEP said the list contained some errors and that the department will try to identify which wells have owners who could be held responsible.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club filed a records request under the state’s Right-to-Know Act and found more than 4,270 violation notices sent to drillers for abandoning oil and gas wells without plugging them. The Sierra Club charged that the industry’s practice is routine.

The Pennsylvania Board on Environmental Quality is considering a request to increase bond amounts for both conventional and unconventional oil and gas wells to save taxpayers the cost of plugging them when they are abandoned.

Ad Crable is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Pennsylvania. Contact him at [email protected]. This article first appeared in the June 2022 issue of the Bay Journal and is distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.

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