Gas Industry’s Solution to Toxic Wastewater: Spray It on Roads

From the article:

“Vengosh says the levels of radioactive material found in conventional brine samples taken from New York are equal to levels he has seen in fracking brine, for example.”

Gas Industry’s Solution to Toxic Wastewater: Spray It on Roads (Neewsweek, March 2, 2015):

In parts of Pennsylvania and New York, the answer to ice-slick wintry roads is simple: Put some gas production waste on it. Municipalities in the northern parts of both states use the salty wastewater from oil and gas production to melt ice in winter and suppress road dust in summer.

The salty liquid does a great job: The brine can be as much as 10 times saltier than typical road salt. Plus it comes cheap; oil and gas companies, glad not to have to pay for disposal, will sell it to towns for cheap, or give it away free. Both states’ environmental protection departments consider brine spreading to be a “beneficial use” of the industrial waste, meaning, in legal terms, that recycling it in this way “does not harm or threaten public health, safety, welfare or the environment.” 

But according to new research, the brine is anything but benign. Worse, states barely track it; New York doesn’t know how much of the stuff is being used on its roads, and the Pennsylvania department charged with regulating it appeared to not fully understand its potential effects until Newsweek got in touch.

The wastewater spread on roads comes from oil and gas wells. To drill, production companies send large volumes of water down the well shaft. The water rises back to the surface as a brine laden with chloride (a salt) as well as a number of other constituents like radium and barium, which are radioactive. The brine used on roads comes from conventional oil and gas production, not hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

But according to Duke University geochemist Avner Vengosh, the conventional drilling waste is nearly identical in many of its most toxic components to the highly controversial fracking waste. Vengosh says the levels of radioactive material found in conventional brine samples taken from New York are equal to levels he has seen in fracking brine, for example.

What’s more, a study Vengosh and his colleagues published last month in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found that brine being discharged, untreated, into Pennsylvania’s waterways—the same liquid that is spread on roads—also contained significant concentrations of ammonium, iodide and bromide. Each of these chemicals can be toxic to living creatures.

Ammonium, when dissolved in water, is highly toxic to aquatic life. It showed up in samples from discharge sites at levels more than 50 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water-quality threshold, according to the study. In other words, as of late summer 2014, when the sampling took place, there was way too much ammonium entering the state’s water bodies.

While the volume of brine used to de-ice roads would be much lower than what was being dumped into rivers, Vengosh says it is important to keep in mind that “you need a very tiny amount of ammonium for it to start to be toxic.”

“No one was much aware of the ammonium…. We were very surprised to find that level in wastewater,” Vengosh says. “If it would be sewage [that was] being released on roads, it would have similar or less ammonium, and it would be criminal to release it like that.”

Iodide and bromide, meanwhile, turn into a variety of toxic compounds when they combine with organic metals in rivers and subsequently flow into water treatment plants, where they combine with the chlorine that gets added to our drinking water during the disinfection process. The interaction with organic metals and chlorine results in “disinfection byproducts”—like iodinated trihalomethanes, brominated trihalomethanes and chloroform—which are carcinogenic.

“It’s kind of sad, perhaps, that in 2015, after decades of operation, we’re just now discovering that [the wastewater] contains those contaminants,” says Vengosh. The problem, he adds, is “that there isn’t any oversight.” He says states need to implement a cap on allowable levels of chloride, the salt component of the brine. Capping chloride levels would effectively limit bromide and iodide levels too, because those constituents always show up in ratios that depend on the amount of chloride in the water.

The first time I called Scott Perry, the deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Office of Oil and Gas Management, he had the opposite take. “We don’t have any data to suggest that that is causing a problem. [Brine spreading] has literally been going on for at least this century and the last,” he says.

Over 3 million gallons of the brine were spread over roads in the northwestern part of the state in 2014. “It doesn’t have to be treated,” Perry says.

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