The application of liquid oil and gas waste from conventional wells onto roadways for dust control and road stabilization is permitted in Pennsylvania, provided that operators adhere to plans approved by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). There are brine spreading guidelines that operators are required to follow, but overall, DEP considers roadspreading to be a beneficial use of the liquid oil and gas waste products.
Dust suppression is a legitimate concern, particularly in areas that see a lot of heavy truck traffic on dirt roads, such rural oil and gas fields. Prolonged exposure to airborne dust contributes to a number of different health problems, ranging from temporary irritation to debilitating diseases of the heart, lungs, and kidneys. This road dust can also impact aquatic life, from plants to aquatic insects to fish.
While applying liquid waste from the oil and gas industry undoubtedly seems like a convenient solution to dusty roads, is roadspreading really advisable?
PA Oil and Gas Liquid Waste Road Applications
In the map above, the areas in green are municipalities where liquid waste from Pennsylvania’s conventional wells were applied to roadways in 2016. The purple areas are counties where additional quantities of the liquid waste were applied in cases where the exact municipality was not specified on the 2016 waste report. The majority of the state’s oil and gas roadspreading remains in Pennsylvania, but some of the brine is spread on roads in New York, as well.
What’s in the brine?
In Pennsylvania, the large-scale extraction efforts from deep carbon-rich shales like the Marcellus and Utica formations are classified as unconventional oil and gas, whereas the shallower formations requiring smaller amounts of hydraulic fracturing stimulation to bring the wells into production are considered to be conventional.
While the chemical components of these brines vary from formation to formation, in general they are known for containing high-salinity toxic metals, such as barium and strontium, as well as volatile organic compounds including benzene. Bromide in the brine can interact with purification processes at treatment plants to create carcinogenic compounds called trihalomethanes. These compounds actually created a problem in the early parts of the Marcellus boom in Western Pennsylvania, when large enough quantities of bromide were added to the region’s rivers and streams. And of particular concern is naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs), which sometimes occur at very high concentrations, even in brines from conventional wells.
The Pennsylvania Geological Survey commissioned Evan Dresel and Arthur Rose from Penn State to investigate oil and gas brine from a sample of 40 wells in 1985, although the accompanying paper wasn’t published until 2010. Their samples included dissolved solids of 343,000 milligrams per liter, and radium occurring at up to 5,300 picocuries per liter. As a point of comparison, the US Environmental Protection Agency mandates that drinking water not exceed 5 picocuries per liter, and the authors of this report express concern about the high levels shown in these brines.
Based on the six samples analyzed, radium shows a general correlation with barium and strontium and an inverse correlation with [sulfate], though the correlation is not perfect. The radium values are high enough that a possible radiation hazard exists, especially where radium could be adsorbed on iron oxides and accumulate in brine tanks.
The article’s preface, written in 2010, echoes the concern, stating, ” the very high radium contents indicate that caution should be used in handling these brines.” One imagines that the radium content might also be a concern for people walking their dogs along dirt roads where these brines are spread.
Testing for radiological contamination appears to be insufficient for liquid oil and gas waste. Ben Stout, PhD, a professor of Biology at Wheeling Jesuit University (and a FracTracker Alliance board member) sampled liquid waste from Marcellus Shale wells in 2009. Here is what he found:
In terms of radiation, 9 of the 13 samples exceeded the drinking water standard for radium. Furthermore, 7 of the 13 samples exceeded the drinking water standard for gross alpha particles, which are a strong indicator of radioactivity. Most notably, one sample from a frac pit at the Phillips #20 site in Westmoreland County, PA yielded a gross alpha reading of 4846 +/‐ 994 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), though the drinking water standard is 15 pCi/L. In fact, the same sample had combined radium readings well over 1,000 pCi/L, a multiple in excess of 200 times the (5 pCi/L) standard. It should be noted that none of the samples triggered a response from radiation meters.
What to do?
By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology, FracTracker Alliance