William Burgos, professor of environmental engineering, and Lara Fowler, senior lecturer at Penn State Law and assistant director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment, will study this impact through research funded by the United States Geological Society.
“In the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, gravel road aggregate has a lot of clay and when you drive over it, it tends to kick up a lot of dust, so they need to use dust suppressants,” Burgos said. “It just so happens that the northwestern portion of the state also has had a lot of oil and gas activity.”
The expansion of natural gas production in Pennsylvania has led to the increased production of oil and gas wastewater. One legally permissible disposal option is to use the wastewater as deicing agents and dust suppressants on local dirt and gravel roadways. Partnerships between oil and gas companies and Pennsylvania townships provide a cost-effective way to meet both the disposal needs of the companies and the road treatment needs of the townships. The problem, however, is that there is growing concern about the migration of the contaminants within the wastewater once they leave the roadway.
“We’re not aware of any detailed studies that have characterized the chemical composition and pollution potential from spreading conventional oil and gas wastewater onto roads,” Burgos said. The researchers want to do just that.
The objective of the study is to investigate if spreading conventional oil and gas wastewater on Pennsylvania roads for dust suppression or deicing is having an impact on water resources. Through collaborations with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the Center for Dirt and Gravel Roads at Penn State, and local Pennsylvania municipalities, the researchers will collect 10 to 12 oil and gas wastewater samples used for road spreading and characterize them for salts, metals, organics and radium. The team will also run the same tests on several commercially available dust suppressants. These liquids will be reacted with road aggregate and subgrade material to determine how the various contaminants are transported to nearby water resources.
“First we want to characterize the wastewaters themselves,” Burgos said. “Then we’re going to take that material and react it by adding it onto the road materials based on an application rate used by most townships.”
After applying the oil and gas wastewater or commercial dust suppressant, the researchers will simulate a rainfall event using distilled, deionized water and analyze what is mobilized into the resulting liquid. This will allow researchers to better understand the fate and transport of the contaminants.
In addition, they will evaluate the existing laws and regulations associated with road spreading of oil and gas wastewaters, both in Pennsylvania and in other states.
“We want to know what level of government regulation addresses this activity,” said Fowler. “We have to understand the laws as we think about what is allowed and what the potential impacts might be.”
The United States Geological Society gave the team a $20,000 grant for this one-year project. Additional researchers include Travis Tasker, doctoral candidate in environmental engineering and Patrick Albert, undergraduate student in materials science and engineering.