Radioactive Drilling Waste Threatens Pennsylvania’s Rural Communities

For decades, Pennsylvania has seen its dirt and gravel roads treated with wastewater from conventional oil and gas drilling.

The practice, intended to control dust and ice, is now under intense scrutiny due to mounting evidence of its environmental and health impacts.

Pennsylvania's roads are treated with toxic drilling wastewater.
Photo: Pexels
Pennsylvania’s roads are treated with toxic drilling wastewater.

Researchers from Penn State University have conducted comprehensive studies on the effects of using drilling wastewater on rural roads. The findings are alarming. The wastewater, laden with heavy metals, salts, and radioactive materials, poses significant risks to both human health and the environment.

Dr. William Burgos, a professor of environmental engineering at Penn State, was one of the lead authors of a study highlighting these risks. He stated, “Oil and gas wastewaters only provide drawbacks.”

The wastewater was found to be no more effective than rainwater in controlling dust and, in some cases, destabilized the roads, increasing long-term maintenance costs, reports the Bay Journal.

This wastewater contains high levels of heavy metals and radioactive materials.
Photo: Pexels
This wastewater contains high levels of heavy metals and radioactive materials.

Contaminants in the Wastewater

The wastewater contains high levels of sodium, which not only fails to bind dust but can also destabilize gravel roads. This instability leads to increased dust generation and higher road maintenance expenses. More troubling, however, are the elevated levels of contaminants such as barium, strontium, lithium, iron, manganese, and radioactive radium found in the wastewater. These substances exceed health standards and pose serious risks, according to PA Environment Daily.

For instance, the study found barium concentrations up to 18 mg/L, well above the 2 mg/L standard set by the EPA and DEP. Strontium levels reached 32 mg/L, far exceeding the 4 mg/L screening level, reports thePA Environment Digest Blog. These findings underscore the potential for significant health hazards, particularly in rural areas where groundwater and surface water contamination can directly impact communities.

Wastewater spreading on roads is meant to control dust and ice.
Photo: Pexels
Wastewater spreading on roads is meant to control dust and ice.

Environmental and Health Risks

The practice of spreading wastewater on roads was halted temporarily in 2018 following legal challenges. Despite the ban, loopholes allowed for continued application under certain conditions. As the Bay Journal reports, between 2018 and 2020, over 2.3 million gallons of wastewater were spread on roads, often without proper analysis or adherence to state requirements.
The health implications are severe. Dust from treated roads can cause respiratory issues and heart problems. Furthermore, runoff from these roads can contaminate water sources, posing risks to both humans and wildlife. The presence of radioactive radium, a known carcinogen, in some samples is particularly concerning. Even low concentrations of radium can pose long-term health risks, the Environmental Protection Agency reports.

Runoff from treated roads can contaminate groundwater and surface water.
Photo: Pexels
Runoff from treated roads can contaminate groundwater and surface water.

Regulatory and Legal Responses

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has faced criticism for its handling of this issue. Despite acknowledging the inadequacies of the submissions from drilling companies, enforcement has been lax, according to the PA Environment Digest Blog. The DEP is currently reviewing applications and considering new regulations to address these concerns.
State Senator Katie Muth has been vocal about the need for stricter regulations. During a virtual public hearing, she emphasized the dangers of spreading toxic, radioactive wastewater on roads, calling for legislative action to close existing loopholes and enforce a complete ban on the practice.

Industry Pushback

The oil and gas industry, however, disputes these findings. Industry representatives argue that wastewater spreading is a cost-effective method for dust control and de-icing, claiming no significant adverse effects have been reported. Daniel J. Weaver, president of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association, told the Bay Journal that municipalities have used brine water without reporting any environmental or health impacts.

Some industry leaders meanwhile have accused the DEP and researchers of bias, arguing that their studies do not accurately reflect real-world conditions. They cite past DEP studies that found no significant environmental harm or unhealthy levels of radioactivity.

Wastewater spreading destabilizes gravel roads, increasing maintenance costs.
Photo: Pexels
Wastewater spreading destabilizes gravel roads, increasing maintenance costs.

Ongoing Debates and Future Directions

The debate over the use of drilling wastewater on Pennsylvania roads continues to heat up. Environmental groups are pushing for stricter regulations and complete bans, while the industry lobbies for the continuation of the practice under revised guidelines.

The DEP is expected to propose new regulations by mid-July, following a presentation to its Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board. These regulations could potentially close the existing loopholes and enforce stricter controls on wastewater spreading.

As Pennsylvania navigates this contentious issue, the stakes remain high. The health of its residents and the integrity of its environment depend on the actions taken by regulators and lawmakers in the coming months.

Take Action for A Healthier Future

The practice of spreading drilling wastewater on Pennsylvania’s roads is fraught with risks. Studies show it poses significant health and environmental hazards, far outweighing any perceived benefits.

As the state grapples with this issue, the need for robust regulatory measures and enforcement is clear. The future of Pennsylvania’s road maintenance practices will have profound implications for its environment and the well-being of its residents.

Click below to take action for people and the planet. Sign our petition to stop toxic drilling wastewater from being used on Pennsylvania roads.

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