The Pennsylvania Senate recently approved legislation setting separate environmental protection standards for conventional oil and gas wells and allowing drilling wastewater from those wells to be used for road spreading.
Conventional wells are those that are drilled vertically into a reservoir of oil or gas, which is then pumped out. They differ from unconventional, or shale gas, wells that are drilled vertically but then have lateral lines that extend for long distances and use hydraulic fracturing to release gas trapped in rock layers.
The legislation, which has been a priority of the conventional gas industry, was approved 26-23 immediately after it was reported out of committee and with no floor debate. The bill now awaits action in the House, where a companion measure has been introduced.
Spreading of wastewater on unpaved roads had been allowed by the state Department of Environmental Protection until 2018, when it was halted after an appeal to the state Environmental Hearing Board. The wastewater is primarily highly salted brine, but also includes contaminants and radioactivity. The wastewater provides a cheap alternative to municipalities to suppress dust on unpaved roads and deice them. About 34 percent of roads in the U.S. are unpaved and they produce 47 percent of annual airborne particulate matter, which can cause respiratory issues.
The spreading is not permitted on paved roads, and wastewater from unconventional wells has never been permitted to be spread, as it contains higher amounts of toxins and contaminants.
While spreading provides a cheap method of disposal and dust suppression, it can also cause health and environmental issues. It is permitted in 13 states, including Ohio. In Pennsylvania, it has been used primarily in the northwest part of the state, but also in Greene and Fayette counties.
A May 2018 study by Penn State University found that “spreading oil and gas wastewater on roads can harm aquatic life and post health risks to humans.” It determined that high salt concentration, requiring up to 1,600 times dilution to reach drinking water quality standards, is the major threat to aquatic life. But radium, a carcinogen, is also in the wastewater and is partially retained on the treated roads.
“In Pennsylvania, we found that radioactivity associated with radium released to the environment via road spreading exceeds the radioactivity released by spill events or wastewater treatment plants,” the study states.
Several environmental groups have expressed their opposition to the bill that was approved by the Senate. It remains to be seen if the legislation will be debated and voted on in the state House.