Spreading Oil & Gas “Brine” Waste On PA Roads Halted… For Now

For someone who doesn’t have an email account, Siri Lawson gets a lot done. In fact, she accomplishes more than most people who do use email.

After observing the use of oil and gas “brine” on her local roads and speaking with neighbors, Lawson realized that a decades-old common practice of spreading the drilling wastewater in her township was not only affecting the health of her community, it also seemed to be a violation of Pennsylvania law – despite being approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP).

Siri enlisted the help of attorneys at Fair Shake, an environmental law firm based in Pittsburgh, to appeal the state’s approval of oil and gas wastewater (called “brine” because of its extremely high salt and chemical content) to de-ice and suppress dust on dirt and gravel roads.

Though the appeal was determined moot by the PA Environmental Hearing Board, as approvals expired in December 2017, the PA DEP admitted that it should not have allowed the spreading of oil and gas “brine” waste on roads. Though DEP requires municipalities and companies to obtain a “certificate of analysis” that shows waste has been tested for toxins, the testing is very minimal and does not include dangerous oil and gas pollutants such as radium – a known carcinogen.

As a result of Siri’s appeal, the PA DEP has halted further approvals for road spreading of oil and gas wastewater.

However, a bill currently making its way through the Pennsylvania legislature would reinstate this dangerous practice of spreading oil and gas waste on roads.

Health Risks of Spreading Drilling Waste

As Siri’s appeal to stop wastewater spreading on local roads was playing out, her own state representatives, Senator Scott Hutchinson and Representative Martin Causer, both long-time promoters of the oil and gas industry, introduced Senate Bill 1088 and House Bill 2154 to remove oil and gas regulations for the conventional drilling industry.

Both of these bills revert laws governing the industry back to 1984 and aim to relieve “conventional” oil and gas operators from stricter regulations enacted in 2012 to include “unconventional” drillers, who target previously unattainable shale formations using modern technology and fracking under very high pressures.

As fracking dominated the debate over environmental protection in the last decade, “the oil and gas industry and its legislative champions propagated the fantasy that conventional operations have limited, if any, environmental and health impacts.” Therefore, the negative effects of conventional oil and gas extraction, such as drinking water contamination and air pollution emissions, have taken a backseat to impacts from unconventional drilling.

For example, while its illegal to spread unconventional drilling wastewater on roads, due to a perception that it is more toxic, spreading conventional wastewater has continued in rural parts of Pennsylvania for decades without adequate testing.

Despite some differences between conventional vs. unconventional drilling or fracking, many of the impacts remain the same.

Contrary to what the legislators behind HB 2154 may want us to believe, the impacts from conventional drilling and waste are significant.

In fact, a study published May 30th found that spreading conventional oil and gas wastewater “brine” on roads has released 200 times more of the carcinogen radium into the environment than all oil and gas industry spills combined.

It’s not just radium that is a concern. Oil and gas wastewater also contains heavy metals and high concentrations of salt that have found their way into drinking water supplies where road spreading has occurred.  

Rolling Back Oil & Gas Regs… Again

In one of the last chapters of HB 2154 (chapter 9, section 904), a dangerous provision for ‘dewasting’ conventional oil and gas waste requires PA DEP to allow road spreading once again, undermining Siri’s accomplishment through appeal.

On June 5th, the state House passed HB 2154 (111-84) despite opposition from PA DEP and Governor Wolf. The bill now awaits approval by the Senate. From there, it would go to Gov. Wolf’s desk for signature.

According to the Associated Press, the Wolf administration is strongly opposed to the bill, which it says “would harm the environment and lessen landowner protections.”

But just because the Governor has expressed opposition to removing environmental protections for the conventional oil and gas industry, that doesn’t mean he’ll live up to his own statements.

After all, Wolf has been in this exact same position before.

Just a couple of years ago, instead of protecting public health and the environment, Wolf instead made a deal with Republican lawmakers by signing SB 279 into law, which exempted conventional oil and gas operators from updated regulations that were years in the making and widely supported.

Now, we need to make sure Governor Wolf doesn’t make the same mistake again…

What You Can Do

Pennsylvanians have a constitutional right “to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” There is no compromise worth putting public health and our most valuable natural resources at risk for the bottom lines of oil and gas companies.

Please take a moment to encourage Governor Wolf to uphold his promise to veto HB 2154 if it reaches his desk.

Submit a comment to Gov. Wolf online here, or call 717-787-2500.