Fracking Wastewater Concerns Resurface on Pennsylvania Roads as the DEP Undergoes an Evaluation of Coproduct Determinations
Feature image by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2019.
Though a 2018 legal win against unauthorized brine spreading signaled the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to enact a statewide ban on the practice, brine spreading continues in our communities. Brine is wastewater from oil and gas industry activities, and is can contain high levels of sodium, chlorides, and other contaminants—the health impacts of which are still mostly unknown.
Pending the DEP’s evaluation of regulations around brine spreading, Fair Shake and FracTracker urge you to take action and spread awareness about this issue to protect the health of our neighbors and our environment.
In February 2018, Fair Shake celebrated the win of its notable client, Siri Lawson, in effectively litigating against Farmington Township in Warren County, Pennsylvania, for the unauthorized approval of brine spreading practices. “Brine spreading” refers to the application of wastewater from the oil and gas industry to unpaved roads to, supposedly, suppress dust. As mentioned in our previous blogpost,  “Brine can contain high levels of sodium, chlorides, bromides, and naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs) such as Radium 226 and 228 and Radon, among other NORMs and toxins.” Much is left unknown about the health impacts of spreading this wastewater, but many townships across Pennsylvania still utilize the practice to suppress dust.
Fair Shake was thrilled when, in the above-noted case before the PA DEP Environmental Hearing Board in 2018, effectively stopped the practice of brine spreading when the DEP issued a statewide ban of the practice.  You can imagine the frustration of Siri, Fair Shake, and other affected communities when we were informed that brine spreading continues despite this order. Siri experienced swelling of her eyes, ears, and tongue and burning of her skin when brining was being performed on roads near her home and she is surely not the only one.
In early October this year, Fair Shake was informed that the DEP’s Bureau of Waste Management is currently evaluating whether the approximately 17 companies that are ridding themselves of brine wastewater by spreading it are conforming to the “Coproduct Determination” Program. This program falls under Chapter 287.8 of the Residual Waste Management Regulations. The DEP’s review is in response to the increasing concern and information that gas fracking and drilling wastewater contains hazardous materials and NORMs. In addition, reports and research exist that brine wastewater spreading is not as effective for dust suppression than other commercial products designed for such use. 
According to Chapter 287.8 regulations, a producer wishing to use a waste or “coproduct” in place of another commercial product may make a “coproduct determination,” essentially allowing that producer to self-determine and self-certify that such waste material has the same physical and chemical characteristics as an intentionally manufactured product or raw material. The producer must also self-determine if the waste material presents no greater threat of harm to human health and the environment than the use of an intentionally produced product. It seems to be an unchecked privilege of producers to make these determinations—to their own benefit—which presents an impressive conflict of interest. The DEP does not oversee these determinations, and only receives reports on how wastewater is used or disposed of.  This is where the hang up is and the DEP is now evaluating whether the self-determinations made by some 17 companies on the safety and chemical characteristics of wastewater brine are appropriate or not. If some of the self-determinations are incorrect, the PA DEP has hinted that it may issue notices of violations or other enforcement. The question remains, how is the DEP allowing brine wastewater coproduct determinations and uses of it to continue after it issued the moratorium on using it as a road dust suppressant in 2018? Fair Shake is looking into what, if any, part of the DEP’s review process of the coproduct determinations that it can take part it or provide comment on.
The Take Away
Fair Shake and FracTracker Alliance are asking you to take action and raise awareness of spreading brine wastewater on roads to protect our communities’ health and environment from chemical contamination. If you see this being performed in your community, notify Fair Shake here. It would be helpful to us to know which township or borough the spreading was observed in and if a specific company was performing the spreading. Your contributions will help us obtain further information on this practice to help stop it going forward.
References & Where to Learn More
See the original post and explore Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services at https://www.fairshake-els.org/blog/2021/11/10/fracking-wastewater-concerns-resurface-on-pennsylvania-roads-as-the-dep-undergoes-an-evaluation-of-coproduct-determinations
 https://environmentamerica.org/sites/environment/files/reports/Fracking%20by%20the%20Numbers%20vUS.pdf p 5.
 https://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2021/08/30/penn-state-study-finds-drilling-wastewater-not-usually-best-option-for-road-treatment/ and also
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