Oil-and-gas wells produce nearly a trillion gallons of toxic waste a year. . .making workers sick and contaminating communities across America
In the summer of 2017, Siri Lawson noticed a group of Amish girls walking down the side of a dirt road near the horse farm where she lives with her husband in Farmington Township, Pennsylvania. The girls, dressed in aprons and blue bonnets, had taken off their shoes and were walking barefoot. Lawson was horrified. She knew the road had been freshly laced with brine.
Radioactive oil-and-gas waste is purposely spread on roadways around the country. The industry pawns off brine — offering it for free — on rural townships that use the salty solution as a winter de-icer and, in the summertime, as a dust tamper on unpaved roads.
Pennsylvania Senate Bill 790 could Make Brine Spreading Legal Again
Newly released documents by the Ohio Department of Environmental Resources (ODNR) support numerous recent scientific studies that oil and gas wastewater—including wastewater from conventional wells—contains harmful levels of radioactivity.
Released under a public records request initiated by members of Ohio citizen groups Buckeye Environmental Network, Citizens Pollution Watch, and Athen’s County Future Action Network, the documents disclose that since April of 2017 ODNR “has been testing ‘brine’ from conventional and horizontal oil/gas wells as well as brine coming to Ohio from out of state wells. The results revealed that all sources of waste contain high levels of Radium-226 and Radium-228, both cancer-inducing forms of radioactivity.”
The ODNR data also included one test performed on wastewater from a Pennsylvania conventional well, which showed a radioactivity level of 3361 pico curies/liter— 672 times the EPA limit for safe drinking water.
“Some Ohio brine samples had combined Radium 226 and 228 levels as high as 9,602 Picocuries per liter.”
“Catherine Wolfe Donohue . . .lay dying. She was among the women who painted luminous numbers on watch, clock, and instrument dials using radium-laced paint. . . . Dubbed “Radium Girls” and “Living Dead,” they suffered radium poisoning and painful, early deaths.“ — “Radium Girls: Living Dead Women” by Arlene Balkansky.
Photo Credit: Worcester Democrat and the Ledger-Enterprise (Pocomoke City, MD), March 4, 1938, p. 9.
In Ohio, this is particularly alarming because brine is still spread on unpaved roads as a dust suppressant, a practice that, at least for the time being, has been halted in Pennsylvania due to a lawsuit by a citizen in Warren County that forced PA DEP to issue a state-wide moratorium on brine spreading.
Unsurprisingly, SB790 is a blatant effort to reduce costs and increase profits for the conventional oil and gas industry, force the taxpayers to subsidize the industry, pre-empt local communities from democratically passing local ordinances to restrict oil and gas pollution risks, and rollback environmental pollution standards not experienced in Pennsylvania since the reckless days prior to the 1984 Oil and Gas Act.
Clearly, SB790 is a legislative admission that the conventional oil and gas industry can’t compete in the modern energy market place without significant environmental concessions and without public funding. But SB790 is not just another corporate welfare scheme meant to keep uncompetitive conventional wells in business for a few more years. This scheme transcends the usual moral turpitude of the “greed is good” laws that protect the assets and profits of the polluter while sticking citizens with the financial costs and liabilities. SB790 and those who support it will cross a grave threshold of knowingly and willfully placing human lives at risk. The science is in; oil and gas waste is radioactive. There is no safe way to dispose of radioactive waste.
It is just no longer possible for a legislator of conscience in Harrisburg to evade the scientific and medical consensus that oil and gas waste water is now and always has been an unmitigated danger to the general welfare. The oil and gas industry has never solved its waste problem and never will; instead, it foisted its waste (now proven to be radioactive) on an unsuspecting and trusting public, which did not understand that their own Department of Environmental Protection was simply running a protection racket for the oil and gas industry.
The conventional oil and gas industry’s business model always depended on regulatory exemptions, greasing the palms of politicians with campaign payola, saturating media with PR, propaganda and paid advertising, and making overblown and unkept promises to provide good jobs in economically desperate areas, especially in the Allegheny Watershed.
It is impossible for the oil and gas industry to ever come clean. But legislators can do the right thing—this time, at least—by rejecting oil and gas donor expectations and instead protecting the health of the people they serve. County Commissioners and township supervisors can repudiate the use of brine on their unpaved roads and demand engineering solutions that work without harming people, pets, livestock, or crops, and which protect and preserve every wild creature’s right to exist and thrive.
But it is DEP among all the players in this danse macabre that must beg redemption. DEP must, today, call the Ohio DNR and request their findings. DEP must then replicate ODNR’s studies (except DEP should use the latest, more accurate testing methods and ensure they are conducted by independent labs not owned by the oil and gas industry).
DEP must immediately begin testing for radioactivity in the soils near previously brined roads, and in the stream sediments adjacent to those roads. DEP must not and need not wait for legislation to act. What Secretary and what Governor with any humanity would wait? Governor Wolf and Secretary McDonnell, find the money, find the will.
DEP, along with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and other relevant Commonwealth agencies, must also identify the radioactive hot zones and provide health testing options for oil and gas workers who have unwittingly been negligently exposed by their employers to hazardous radioactive wastes. And Commonwealth agencies (as well as the Governor and legislature) must finally support medical research studies in those areas most impacted by oil and gas industry pollution. It is time we learned the true health risks of oil and gas pollution. It is time our sick, injured and dying receive justice.
In short, DEP must radically reform and evolve—and not just in one or two regional offices, but across the Department. Needless to say, there has seldom been a more appropriate time for a new leadership model at DEP, one uncorrupted by institutionalized pandering to moneyed interests. We the people need an objective, science-based, honest Department that protects ecosystems above economics.
DEP, do your job!
Obviously, the oil and gas industry—like the tobacco industry it so often resembles and emulates—will refuse to admit, let alone voluntarily remediate, the damage it has wreaked on human health and the environment. After all, SB790 is just the same tired method the oil and gas industry has always used: hide behind industry-friendly legislation, take the profits and run, and leave behind the detritus of their devlish handiwork, including the hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells leaking brine and methane left for the public to plug, radioactive rivers, radioactive roads, and who knows how much human suffering.
SB790 proves that the conventional oil and gas industry is drowning in its own radioactive wastewater. Perhaps we are witnessing the end of the conventional oil and gas industry. And since the quantities of radioactive wastewater are astronomically greater with unconventional wells, how long will it take before that reckoning comes.
Contact Governor Wolf and demand that PA DEP request Ohio DNR documents and take other immediate actions to assess and mitigate the extent of the radioactive damage caused by oil and gas wastes.