PSU study: Using oil and gas wastewater to reduce road dust may not be effective; could be harmful

Written by on September 3, 2021

 PSU study: Using oil and gas wastewater to reduce road dust may not be effective; could be harmful

By Rachel McDevitt / StateImpact Pennsylvania

September 6, 2021

An example of the solid chemicals and brine that are removed from fracking fluid. Photo | Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Up until a few years ago, some municipalities used wastewater from oil and gas drilling as a cheap way to keep dust down on unpaved roads. Several state lawmakers would like to allow the practice again.

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But new research shows the wastewater may not be very effective at treating roads.

Researchers at Penn State compared eight oil and gas wastewaters or brines, waste soybean oil, and commercial dust suppressants to see how well they controlled particle pollution on simulated patches of road.

The brines varied widely in performance–one did nearly as well as commercial options while some did worse than no treatment at all.

That’s likely because of differences in chemistry, says Nathaniel Warner, who led the peer-reviewed study.

“There was a really wide range in how well oil and gas brines worked. And in particular that came down to the chemistry of the water, it seemed,” Warner said. 

He said it’s important to be able to weigh the risks and benefits of the practice.

“We really need to understand how well you suppress the dust, so we can then see, ok, based on the concentrations in the dust, what impact that would have on people’s health,” Warner said. 

Previous research from Penn State found brine can hold radioactive and carcinogenic materials that can threaten people’s health.

The Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, (PIOGA) which supports allowing brine to treat roads, says townships have responsibly and safely done so with minimal impact to the environment.

Burt Waite, a retired geologist and former board member of the PIOGA, said he’s worked with townships that responsibly use wastewater with minimal environmental impact.

“They would not put brine on roads if it did not help,” Waite said. 


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