Oil and Gas Wastewater Use in Road Maintenance is a Potential Pollution Source

Did you know that at least 13 states–including IL, IN, MI, NY, OH, & PA bordering the Great Lakes–allow wastewater from oil and gas extraction to be used in a variety of road maintenance applications? The high salt content of oil and gas well wastewaters makes them  effective for use in deicing or retaining road moisture for the purposes of dust suppression. At first blush, this arrangement seems like a win-win, saving the well operators money in terms of wastewater treatment, and saving local government funding that might otherwise need to be spent on deicing and dust control fluids. The cost-effectiveness of this arrangement could be particularly important for rural communities with limited budgets.

Map of US highlighting states with regulations for spreading oil and gas (O&G) wastewaters on roads.
From Tasker et al., 2018. Environmental Science & Technology, 52 (12), pp. 7081-7091.

However, a report published in a recent issue of Environmental Science and Technology highlights the potential environmental and human health ramifications of using oil and gas wastewater in this fashion.  From the article’s abstract: “Analyses 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. Bioassays also indicated that these wastewaters contain organic micropollutants that affected signaling pathways consistent with xenobiotic metabolism and caused toxicity to aquatic organisms like Daphnia magna. The potential toxicity of these wastewaters is a concern as lab experiments demonstrated that nearly all of the metals from these wastewaters leach from roads after rain events, likely reaching ground and surface water. Release of a known carcinogen (e.g., radium) from roads treated with O&G wastewaters has been largely ignored. In Pennsylvania from 2008 to 2014, spreading O&G wastewater on roads released over 4 times more radium to the environment (320 millicuries) than O&G wastewater treatment facilities and 200 times more radium than spill events. Currently, state-by-state regulations do not require radium analyses prior to treating roads with O&G wastewaters. “

The researchers propose the following means to reduce potential harmful impacts from using oil and gas (O&G) wastewater for road treatment. Note that “DRO” stands for “diesel range organics” and “GRO” is “gas range organics” which is indicative of the total petroleum hydrocarbon present (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Total_petroleum_hydrocarbon for further information).  “1) Only O&G wastewaters that have been treated at wastewater treatment facilities should be considered for road spreading. The high calcium, sodium, and magnesium concentrations in O&G wastewaters are important for suppressing dust. In addition to the high salt concentrations, these wastewaters contain lead, radium, and organic compounds that could be potentially toxic. Wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to remove the high salt concentrations in O&G wastewaters. However, they can effectively remove radium, oil and grease, and other trace metals. 2) O&G wastewaters approved for road spreading should contain <60 pCi/L radium and <10 mg/L of total DRO and GRO, similar to other industrial wastewater effluent standards. No induction to human cell receptors was observed at DRO and GRO concentrations below 10 mg/L. In most cases, the chemical composition of O&G wastewater intended for road spreading must be submitted and approved before use. However, requirements for these chemical characterizations are relatively modest, vary widely between states, and currently do not include radium. Having chemical standards for O&G wastewaters that can be spread on roads could help reduce the potential toxicity concerns associated with this practice. 3) Affordable nontoxic dust suppressants should be developed and used.”

In other words, they recommend development and use of cheaper, nontoxic alternatives for the benefit of communities with limited road maintenance budgets, and in instances where oil and gas wastewaters are used, those substances should be treated first to remove potentially toxic trace metals, as well as tested and confirmed as having levels of radium and petroleum hydrocarbon levels deemed safe based on industrial wastewater treatment standards.

Read the full article at https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.8b00716.

Citation: T. L. Tasker, W. D. Burgos, P. Piotrowski, L. Castillo-Meza, T. A. Blewett, K. B. Ganow, A. Stallworth, P. L. M. Delompré, G. G. Goss, L. B. Fowler, J. P. Vanden Heuvel, F. Dorman, and N. R. Warner. 2018. Environmental and Human Health Impacts of Spreading Oil and Gas Wastewater on Roads. Environmental Science & Technology, 52 (12), pp. 7081-7091. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b00716.

#BeatPlasticPollution on World Environment Day

Today is an important “holiday” of sorts for those of us who are sustainability professionals. On this day in 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm Sweden, began (June 5-16, 1972). The purpose of that conference was to discuss human interactions with the environment, as well as encouraging governments and international organizations to take action related to environmental issues and providing guidelines for such action. This was the UN’s first major conference on international environmental issues, and it culminated in what’s commonly called the “Stockholm Declaration”—the first document in international environmental law to recognize the right to a healthy environment. Two years later, in 1974, the first World Environment Day was held on June 5 with the theme of “Only One Earth.” Since then, World Environment Day has been celebrated annually on June 5th. Each year has a theme around which activities center, and beginning in the late 1980s, the main celebrations began to rotate to different cities around the globe. Learn more about the UN Conference on the Human Environment at https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/milestones/humanenvironment and the history of World Environment Day at http://worldenvironmentday.global/en/about/world-environment-day-driving-five-decades-environmental-action.

This year’s World Environment Day theme, chosen by the host nation, India, (New Delhi is the host city) is “beating plastic pollution,” with the tagline “If you can’t reuse it, refuse it.” According to the World Environment Day web site: “While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become over reliant on single-use or disposable plastic – with severe environmental consequences. Around the world, 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute. Every year we use up to 5 trillion disposable plastic bags. In total, 50 per cent of the plastic we use is single use. Nearly one third of the plastic packaging we use escapes collection systems, which means that it ends up clogging our city streets and polluting our natural environment. Every year, up to 13 million tons of plastic leak into our oceans, where it smothers coral reefs and threatens vulnerable marine wildlife. The plastic that ends up in the oceans can circle the Earth four times in a single year, and it can persist for up to 1,000 years before it fully disintegrates. Plastic also makes its way into our water supply – and thus into our bodies. What harm does that cause? Scientists still aren’t sure, but plastics contain a number of chemicals, many of which are toxic or disrupt hormones. Plastics can also serve as a magnet for other pollutants, including dioxins, metals and pesticides.”

To combat the environmental and human health issues associated with the global addiction to single use plastics, the UN Environment Programme is encouraging people to join the global game of #BeatPlasticPollution tag. Here’s how to play:

  1. Choose which type of single-use plastic you’re ready to give up.
  2. Take a selfie (photo or video) showing yourself with the reusable alternative that you’re ready to embrace.
  3. Share your selfie on social media and “tag” three friends, businesses or high-profile people to challenge them to do the same within 24 hours. Be sure to use the #BeatPlasticPollution hashtag and mention @UNEnvironment.

So what single use plastic item will you pledge to give up today—plastic straws, disposable plastic shopping bags, disposable coffee pods, plastic water bottles, or something else? For inspiration, see http://worldenvironmentday.global/en/get-involved/join-global-game-beatplasticpollution-tag.

Image of the #beatplasticpollution poster, outlining the steps for playing the global game of "tag" described in this post.

This post was written by Joy Scrogum, ISTC Sustainability Specialist.