Brine: A matter of public health?

Is the use of brine from oil and gas operations as a dust suppressant and de-icer on dirt roads a human health hazard?

There hasn’t been a vast amount of research done to outline the health effects.

What it appears to come down to is this – should we be more concerned about the health risk we can see or the one that we can’t?

The state Department of Environmental Protection placed a moratorium on the use of brine back in May after an appeal from a Farmington Township woman revealed problems with how DEP was issuing approvals for brine use.

“Prior to that lawsuit, DEP was authorizing the use of brine on roads through a ‘fact sheet’, which is not a duly promulgated regulation,” Melanie Williams, DEP spokesperson said.

Williams told the Times Observer in June that “DEP is working with Pennsylvania Grade Crude Advisory Council to develop new regulations for the conventional oil and gas operations. These regulations will likely include regulations on brine-spreading and will consider scientific research.”

An effort is also underway in the General Assembly that would essentially re-define brine and outline procedures for its use to be reinstated.

A May study published by the American Chemical Society, which included researchers from Penn State, specifically explored this issue.

Those researchers note that approximately 34 percent of U.S. roads are unpaved and “produce 47 percent of the annual airborne particulate matter emissions. Airborne particulate matter from roads can contribute to chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as vegetative stress in local plant communities.”

However, they also conclude that “(a)nalyses of O&G wastewaters spread on roads in the northeastern, U.S. show that these wastewaters have salt, radioactivity and organic contaminant concentrations often many times above drinking water standards.

An analysis of the wastewater “spreads in roads in the northeast, U.S. (NY and Pa.) are chloride-rich fluids with sodium, calcium, magnesium and strontium comprising greater than 90 percent of the total cation charge equivalents…. Considering the chloride concentrations… these fluids require 730 to 1,600 times dilution to prevent drinking water quality degradation around road spreading locations.

“Most contaminants in O&G wastewater applied to roads were leached with synthetic rainwater. In contrast, a few contaminants were retained in the road aggregate at greater than 99 percent (iron and lead) after rainwater leaching.”

They further note that 50 percent of the radium present in brine remained after leaching.

The wrote that a DEP study looked specifically at “the potential for radium, a known carcinogen, to accumulate around roads treated with O&G wastewaters. Large variabilities in radium concentrations measured in untreated and treated roads led to inconclusive results.”

“Radium now retained in the road aggregate will run off into ditches or underlying soils,” they continue, but note that after several tests “radium concentrations were below the regulatory standard.”

They acknowledge on that issue that further research is needed.

While they state in their conclusion that “spreading O&G wastewater on roads can harm aquatic life and pose health risks to humans,” they also note further in their conclusion that there “could” be human health impacts.

Additional research by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey also found radium at elevated levels.

A DEP fact sheet outlines similar conclusions.

A face sheet prepared by DEP cites the cheap cost of using brine as well as an “advantage” of “reduced dust emissions, helping lower the potential of respiratory and cardiovascular emissions from dust emissions.”

“There are also disadvantages,” DEP notes. “The spreading of brine from oil and gas drilling can threaten environmental and public health by leaching into the surface or ground water, accumulating in roads or adjacent soils, modifying adjacent soil chemistry and migrating in air and dust.”