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Rural road dust suppression technique called into question

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(The Center Square) — To suppress dust, Pennsylvania allows oil and gas companies to spread wastewater on dirt and gravel roads.

A new bill, however, would end the practice over concerns for human health and nature alike.

Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Havertown, introduced House Bill 2384 to end the spread of wastewater – also called production brine – on all land, developed or undeveloped.

“This practice of spreading this wastewater has gone on for many years. This has been specifically prohibited by regulation with regard to the unconventional drilling industry,” Vitali said during a Monday House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee hearing. “The issue really is the longstanding practice of the conventional industry spreading this oil and gas wastewater on our gravel roads and in other places.”

Vitali said that though the Department of Environmental Protection has not approved permits to spread brine on roads since 2018, the practice continues.

Figuring out how much wastewater has been spread on roads isn’t easy, however. One estimation counted 3.5 million gallons since 2018.

Eric Chase, an assistant teaching professor and research analyst at Penn State University, noted that studies found chlorides, bromides, radium, barium and other petroleum hydrocarbons in the wastewater, as well as dramatically higher levels of chlorine.

“Oil and gas-produced waters are not effective at suppressing dust and pose environmental risks and harm due to the high levels of chloride and radium,” Chase said.

Rep. Martin Causer, R-Bradford, called the proposed legislation an “attack on rural residents across the commonwealth.”

“We are continually lectured in this committee about the fact that the environmental rights amendment in our const provides that residents of the commonwealth are guaranteed clean air and water — but this legislation does just the opposite,” he said. “It takes away the ability of our local communities to protect air quality for their residents.”

Causer noted township governments have used brine for years to control dust on township highways and argued state officials are “very misguided” in looking to end it.

Other states, like Ohio and Michigan, have used brine for ice and dust control, with Ohio setting regulations and standards at the state level, and localities permitting its use.

One major appeal for using brine has been its cost: the wastewater is free, while commercial dust and ice suppressants cost much more.

The practical issue of what would replace the wastewater had Causer concerned.

“How else do we control the dust in areas like Warren and McKean and Potter?” he asked. “There are some alternatives … but for many of these townships, it’s out of reach. My own township, 700 people 40-some miles of road; the budget is not there to purchase a commercial product. How do they control the dust … what else are the township supervisors supposed to do?”

David Hess, a former head of DEP, called for an “immediate and total ban” on road dumping.

“It’s the only effective way to prevent millions of gallons of wastewater from polluting our environment,” he said. “It’s waste that needs to be disposed of without doing harm to people or the environment.”

DEP officials noted that they support Vitali’s legislative ban.

Opponents of using brine pointed to the state as responsible for ending the practice and supporting rural areas that have relied on brine to suppress dust.

“This is the legislature that has how many billions in excess?” said Karen Feridun, co-founder of the Better Path Coalition, an environmental advocacy group. “If they want to get off a bad practice, they can still ban road spreading of toxic, radioactive waste — and then provide funding so that municipalities have the funds that they need to do the right thing … You’re the state legislature, you are the ones who make the deals with the industry.”