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Conventional oil and gas producers have spread millions of gallons of drilling waste on Pennsylvania roads in the last few years, despite a 2018 moratorium on the practice. 

For years, companies have spread oil and gas waste on roads to suppress dust and melt ice. But in 2016, the state blocked the practice for waste from Marcellus shale wells. In 2018, it also prohibited the spreading of waste from conventional oil and gas wells, which typically tap shallower rock formations. 

The decision resulted in a 90 percent drop on the amount of conventional waste, or brine, spread on roads, said Karen Feridun of the non-profit Better Path Coalition, which produced a report on the topic. Still, Feridun says, companies have disposed of over 2 million gallons of conventional drilling waste on Pennsylvania roads since 2018. 

“What really are the distinctions between conventional and unconventional (waste)?” Feridun said. “If you are going to take that step of banning unconventional, why not both?” 

Both conventional and unconventional drilling waste contain salts, metals, and naturally-occurring radioactive materials. 

Most conventional waste is disposed of at treatment facilities or injection disposal wells. But companies are still disposing of some of their waste through road spreading.

Loophole allows road speading

They are using a loophole in state law called “coproduct determination,” which allows for companies to replace a commercially-available product with industrial waste as long as using that waste does not “present a greater threat of harm to human health and the environment” than the product it’s replacing. As part of this process, companies are required to evaluate “total levels of hazardous or toxic constituents” in their waste.  

Earlier this year, the DEP asked 17 companies that had reported road spreading for additional information on these activities. Their responses showed the companies had tested their waste for salts and other minerals. 

But Feridun, who reviewed these submissions to the DEP obtained through Right-to-Know requests, says the companies aren’t testing the waste for radioactivity and other contaminants. 

“There are just all sorts of substances and chemicals that are in the waste that are extremely dangerous and are going to have long lasting effects,” Feridun said. 

The DEP says it’s reviewing the responses and has asked the companies for more information. 

The DEP has found deficiencies in the analysis and documentation produced by some operators to support the use of brine from conventional oil and gas wells,” said DEP spokesman Jamar Thrasher, in an email. “The DEP has requested more information and will take appropriate action upon evaluating that information.”

Conventional drilling companies argue road spreading in Pennsylvania is one of the few remaining disposal methods for small companies.

“The alternatives to produced water disposal in Pennsylvania continue to shrink,” said Burt Waite, an independent geologist and member of the DEP’s Pennsylvania Grade Crude Development Advisory Council, at a council hearing Thursday. “At the same time, we’re receiving calls from townships crying for the (waste)water, as it is effective to controlling dust and stabilizing roads.”

Risks from drilling wastewater

But a recent Penn State study cast doubt on the efficacy of using oil and gas waste on roads to suppress dust. Commercial treatments were often better than using oil and gas brine, and some of the wastewater used in the study did worse than no treatment at all. 

Another study found road spreading practice could threaten environmental and public health, because the waste can contain levels of radium, a radioactive element and known carcinogen, “often many times above drinking water standards.”

“If there’s no way of dealing with the waste, then you shouldn’t really be doing the practice in the first place,” Feridun said. “If you can’t manage the waste, don’t generate it.”

The conventional industry is waiting for the results of another Penn State study to examine the environmental impacts of the practice. The study is expected to be released later this winter. The DEP is also conducting its own study and reviewing the issue, according to Thrasher.  

Using that information, the DEP will propose appropriate measures to address this practice consistent with applicable law and these scientific results,” Thrasher said. 

The state legislature could attempt to step in on the issue; a bill in committee would allow road spreading for conventional oil and gas waste.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.