Cars on Brownsville Road.
Cars on Brownsville Road.

A gas industry advisory council to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection opened its meeting earlier this month by discussing the possibility of legalizing the spreading of toxic wastewater from conventional gas drilling on roads as a dust and snow treatment, despite studies showing the practice is potentially harmful to human health and the environment.

The Pennsylvania Grade Crude Development Advisory Council’s agenda included consideration of two recent studies from Penn State University, the second published in July, that concluded such roadway treatments were ineffective and potentially unsafe.

Spraying roads with “produced water,” highly saline wastewater containing proprietary drilling chemicals as well as benzene, arsenic and radium 226 and 228, both radioactive isotopes, has been outlawed in Pennsylvania since 2016, but only for fluid that comes from unconventional, or fracked, gas wells. The DEP issued a moratorium on spraying produced water from conventional wells onto roadways in Pennsylvania in 2018 after the practice was challenged before the state’s Environmental Hearing Board.

Despite the recent studies, advisory council members remain unconvinced that spreading produced water from conventional wells on roadways would be harmful. The meeting opened with a discussion about the feasibility of submitting a rule-making petition to the DEP to legalize the spreading of produced water from conventional wells on roads as a dust suppressant.

One member of the council likened spreading liquids on roads to the game Russian roulette. “Anything can go on roads,” said Arthur Stewart, president of the oil and gas services company Cameron. “Except we’re not putting produced water down because that’s the one out of the many that we’ve stopped to study.”

Another said he doubted the results from the two studies. “I’m not alarmed by this report,” he said, in reference to the July study. He was equally skeptical about the health ramifications of spreading produced water on roads. “I don’t believe any of this is harming, in a significant way, human health or the environment,” he said.

The DEP, asked about comments by advisory council members, said in a statement that it “considers all research, impact analysis, or regulatory action, as we work to protect public health and safety and the environment from potential impacts from oil and gas activities.”

The agency noted that spreading produced water from unconventional wells is illegal in the state, but that its regulations allow for an industry to demonstrate its waste is safe for another purpose.

“To date, no conventional oil and gas operator has made the necessary showing to use conventional oil and gas produced water for roadspreading,” the DEP said.

The agency did not directly address whether it supports legalizing the practice, saying only that it “will make changes as needed to protect Pennsylvanians’ health and environment.”

David Hess, the retired former DEP secretary who now edits a blog called the PA Environmental Digest, watched, recorded and transcribed the live-streamed meeting and published a summary of the proceedings.

“The reality is, even though dumping on roads is illegal, it is happening all the time, every day,” said Hess, who does not support the practice. Local reporting and watchdog organizations who follow the uses of produced water have also reported that produced water is still dumped on roadways in Pennsylvania, despite the moratorium.

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Scientists in Pennsylvania who study the chemical composition of produced water and its effects once spread on roadways have found that it is an ineffective means of suppressing dust and melting ice, and is potentially harmful to human health and the environment.

At their peak, conventional wells numbered in the hundreds of thousands in Pennsylvania before eventually drying up. Now, unconventional wells, which bore deeper than conventional wells and run both vertically and horizontally, account for most of the gas produced in the state. Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry generated over 2 billion gallons of produced water in 2022, the vast majority of which comes from unconventional wells.

Produced water from unconventional wells is “very similar physically and chemically,” to produced water from conventional wells, said Hess. “The only difference may be there are some other chemicals in the unconventional wastewater.”

Produced water spread on roads “washes off the road, and doesn’t suppress dust,” said Bill Burgos, a professor of environmental engineering at Penn State and a co-author of the studies discussed at the advisory council meeting. “It’s a terrible idea.”

Burgos and a team of scientists at Penn State began publishing studies on produced water in the late 2010s, and, after years of studying the chemical makeup of the material, Burgos was shocked to discover the term “road spreading” in one of his data files. “Surely this stuff isn’t spread on roads,” he remembered thinking.

“There’s plenty of examples of seeing stressed vegetation in the gullies by the road because there’s so much salt” in the produced water, he continued. “Health issues are often slow to develop — you don’t see them right away.”

In the last two years, Burgos has co-authored two studies that examine the efficacy and consequences of spreading produced water on roads as a dust and winter weather suppressant. The first, released by the DEP last May, found that “when applied as a dust suppressant, oil and gas produced waters were essentially no more effective than rainwater.”

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The second, published this July and the subject of the most recent meeting, found that many organic and brine-based materials spread on roads have potential health and environmental consequences — including produced water. The difference was that many of the other materials the team studied worked as a dust suppressant or winter weather mitigator, whereas “you get all the risk and no benefit of the product from oil and gas materials,” Burgos said.

Burgos, who has been invited to past advisory council meetings to discuss his work, finds it “frustrating to hear those guys taking things we’ve done and twisting it to fit their position.”

At the meeting, Kurt Klapkowski, the acting deputy secretary of oil and gas management at the DEP, initially sounded skeptical of the arguments Stewart and others were making, at least from a regulatory perspective. “Because produced fluids are waste material, we have to treat them, regulate them as waste material,” he said.

The challenge the conventional oil and gas industry faces, he continued, is finding a way to get produced water designated for “beneficial reuse.” Klapkowski acknowledged that that outcome may be unlikely.

That last point particularly rankled Tom Schuster, the director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club, a conservation organization. “We should all be skeptical when we try to classify industrial waste as beneficial. Beneficial to whom?” he asked. “The beneficial part is only for the industry.”

Schuster said the Sierra Club would support an outright ban on produced water being spread on roadways and said that legislative efforts to regulate the industry shouldn’t stop there.

Produced water “needs to be treated as hazardous waste — because it is hazardous waste,” he said.

Right now, there are bills in the Pennsylvania General Assembly that would close the loopholes that allow oil and gas companies to treat their waste as non-hazardous, but Hess is not convinced a swift legislative backlash to any proposal from the oil and gas industry is imminent.

Conventional oil and gas producers “have done their best to try and block anything that even resembles change,” Hess said, “and they’ve been very good at it.”

“They have political folks that protect them, and that’s been true for decade after decade after decade.”

This article originally appeared in Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.

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