If you’re a regular reader of Planet Experts, you may be aware that Californians recently discovered that fracking wastewater has been dumped into their aquifers for years. You may also be aware that this wastewater is chock-full of benzene, toluene and chromium-6, all carcinogenic chemicals. So what’s the best way to dispose of this nasty stuff? Probably not spreading it on your roads – but that’s exactly what New York and Pennsylvania are doing.
Now, first of all, it’s important to note that the wastewater that’s being used on the roads in these states – unlike in California – has not been produced by fracking. In this instance, the wastewater, or brine, comes from conventional oil and gas production – but they share a lot of the same chemicals. The fracking brine that recently spilled in North Dakota, for instance, was about five to eight times saltier than seawater and contained such toxic elements as ammonium, chloride, heavy metals and radioactive material.
According to Newsweek, the brine being used in New York and Pennsylvania is 10 times saltier than road salt (which is one reason these states are using it to melt their snow) and contains significant concentrations of ammonium, iodide and bromide, all of which can be toxic to living creatures. It also contains radium and barium, which are radioactive.
So, why are states spreading these dangerous chemicals on their roads? Well, in addition to its super-saltiness, they get it cheap. If oil and gas companies sell their wastewater, that means they don’t have to pay to dispose of it. In some instances, they give it away for free.
Unfortunately, the brine used in New York and Pennslvania is just as radioactive as fracking brine, according to Avner Vengosh, a Duke University geochemist whose findings on the topic were recently published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Just as disturbing, the amount of ammonium measured from discharge sites is 50 times higher than the EPA’s water quality threshold. Ammonium, once mixed with water, can be highly toxic. According to Vengosh, “No one was much aware of the ammonium…. We were very surprised to find that level in wastewater. If it would be sewage [that was] being released on roads, it would have similar or less ammonium, and it would be criminal to release it like that.”
As for that iodide and bromide? When it combines with organic metals in rivers and the chlorine that is added to drinking water when it reaches water treatment plants, it creates such chemicals as iodinated trihalomethanes, brominated trihalomethanes and chloroform. In case you haven’t noticed the pattern, these, too, are carcinogenic.
“It’s kind of sad, perhaps, that in 2015, after decades of operation, we’re just now discovering that [the wastewater] contains those contaminants,” said Vengosh.
And if you want to know how much of this stuff is sitting on your street, you’re out of luck. According to Newsweek, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation doesn’t require annual reporting of brine-spreading operations. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Oil and Gas Management seems equally clueless.
“I think we should probably look at the effect of chlorides on water resources,” the deputy secretary of the department told Newsweek’s Zoe Schlanger.
At least they’re aware of the problem now.