En partes de Pensilvania y Nueva York la respuesta a las carreteras heladas en invierno en sencilla: echar en ellas el agua de deshechos de la producción de gas no convencional. Ayuntamiento de la parte norte de ambos estados emplean el agua de deshecho salada de la industria del gas y petroleo de fracking para derretir el hielo en invierno y eliminar el polvo en verano.
El liquido salado hace un gran trabajo: la salina puede ser mas de 10 veces más salada que la típica sal para carretera.
Además es barata; las empresas de gas y petroleo de fracking están encantadas de no tener que pagar por no verter las agua residuales y se las enviarán a los pueblos baratas o se las darán gratis.
En ambos estados “los departamentos de Protección Ambiental consideran que esparcir salinas es un uso beneficioso de un residuo industrial” , lo que significa en términos legales que “reciclarlo” de esta manera “no lesiona o amenaza la salud pública, seguridad, beneficio o medio ambiente ” .
Pero de acuerdo a una nueva investigación, la salina es cualquier cosa menos benigna. Peor aún, los estado apenas lo rastrean; New York no sabe cuando de este producto se esta empleando en sus carreteras , y en Pennsylvania el departamento encargado de su regulación parecia que no entendia sus potenciales efectos hasta que Newsweek se puso en contacto.
The wastewater spread on roads comes from oil and gas wells. To drill, production companies send large volumes of water down the well shaft. The water rises back to the surface as a brine laden with chloride (a salt) as well as a number of other constituents like radium and barium, which are radioactive. The brine used on roads comes from conventional oil and gas production, not hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
Pero según el geoquímico Avner Vengosh de la Universidad de Duke , los deshechos de las perforaciones convencionales son prácticamente idénticos en muchos de sus compuestos más tóxicos al enormemente controvertido deshecho del fracking. Vengosh dice que los niveles de materiales radioactivos encontrados en muestras de las salinas convencionales tomadas en Nueva York tienen iguales niveles que él ha encontrado en las salinas del fracking horizontal, por ejemplo.
Más aún, un estudio publicado por Vengosh y su colega el mes pasado en la revista Environmental Science & Technology encontró que las salinas que estaban siendo vertidas , sin tratar por los canales fluviales de Pensilvania -el mismo liquido que se fumiga por las carreteras- tambien contiene concetraciones significativas de amonio, iodo y bromo . Cada uno de estos productos quimicos es toxico para los seres vivos.
El amonio es altamente toxico para la vida acuática cuando se disuelve en el agua. It showed up in samples from discharge sites at levels more than 50 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water-quality threshold, according to the study. In other words, as of late summer 2014, when the sampling took place, there was way too much ammonium entering the state’s water bodies.
While the volume of brine used to de-ice roads would be much lower than what was being dumped into rivers, Vengosh says it is important to keep in mind that “you need a very tiny amount of ammonium for it to start to be toxic.”
“No one was much aware of the ammonium…. We were very surprised to find that level in wastewater,” Vengosh says. “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.”
Iodide and bromide, meanwhile, turn into a variety of toxic compounds when they combine with organic metals in rivers and subsequently flow into water treatment plants, where they combine with the chlorine that gets added to our drinking water during the disinfection process. The interaction with organic metals and chlorine results in “disinfection byproducts”—like iodinated trihalomethanes, brominated trihalomethanes and chloroform—which 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,” says Vengosh. The problem, he adds, is “that there isn’t any oversight.” He says states need to implement a cap on allowable levels of chloride, the salt component of the brine. Capping chloride levels would effectively limit bromide and iodide levels too, because those constituents always show up in ratios that depend on the amount of chloride in the water.
The first time I called Scott Perry, the deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Office of Oil and Gas Management, he had the opposite take. “We don’t have any data to suggest that that is causing a problem. [Brine spreading] has literally been going on for at least this century and the last,” he says.
Over 3 million gallons of the brine were spread over roads in the northwestern part of the state in 2014. “It doesn’t have to be treated,” Perry says.
A number of other rules must be followed, however. Brine cannot be applied in Pennsylvania within 150 feet of a stream, creek, lake or other body of water, and it can’t be spread while it is raining or “when rain is imminent,” to avoid runoff. If the slope of the road is at an angle steeper than 10 percent, brine can’t be used.
Pennsylvania recently evaluated whether the radioactive material in the brine could have an acute or chronic impact on the health of people who jog or cycle on treated roads and found there was “little potential for harm.” But the study did not look into the implications of brine spreading on the surrounding waterways.
By our second conversation, Perry had dug up a state-funded study from 1996 that gave him pause. The study found that there was, indeed, “potential for brine to migrate from the roadway and impact ground or surface water quality.”
“However, by controlling the frequency and application rates and complying with the other provisions of the DEP guidelines, impacts to ground and surface waters can be minimized while still meeting the road maintenance objective,” the paper reads.
The paper concludes that there is “a need to balance the beneficial aspects of spreading brine on unpaved roads against the potential impacts to ground and surface water.”
Pennsylvania incorporated the recommendations of the study into its brine-spreading guidelines, reducing the volume of the maximum recommended application rate from 1 gallon of brine per square yard of road to half a gallon per square yard. But those remained (and remain today) guidelines for use, not rules.
“I think as a result of my reading that study, and the work we’ve done regarding [radioactivity], it seems to me that it’s really prudent for us to take another look at the use for road spreading,” Perry told me. “I think we should go and take some other samples from the environment. It could result in no changes, that in fact the application rates in the guidelines prove themselves to be correct.
“And I think we should probably look at the effect of chlorides on water resources,” he said.
In New York, meanwhile, even less is known about the brine spreading. A spokeswoman for New York State Department of Environmental Conservation told public radio station WAMC last year that in order to obtain “beneficial use” status in New York, the road-spreading plans must avoid affecting state forest areas, wetlands and surface water bodies. The state reviews permit applications on a case-by-case basis, though the specifics of the requirements are not publicly available.
But the department doesn’t require annual reporting from brine-spreading operations, so it doesn’t know how much is used each year. Plus, brine produced in New York may also be shipped to other states for road spreading, but the department doesn’t track who ships it or where it ends up.
Last year, non-profit water-quality organization Riverkeeper uncovered data about New York brine spreading through a Freedom of Information Law request submitted to the environmental conservation department. They found that permits had been issued to parts of 23 municipalities in seven western New York counties to spread natural gas production brine on roads. FracTracker, a non-profit, turned the data from permits into a map of where the brine is used within the state.
Bill Wegner, a biologist on staff at Riverkeeper, says New York’s safety requirements aren’t enough to protect water supplies. “It can still infiltrate into groundwater, and aquifers, which supply baseflow to streams…[and] I don’t think there’s a safe way to use anything that’s radioactive,” he says. “There are a lot of other ways to de-ice a road.”
Vengosh, meanwhile, says more study needs to be done on the impact of spreading brine on roads. “No one has systematically evaluated this.”
Speaking of his work and that of his colleagues, he says, “We are not anti-fracking at all.” But given how similar toxic wastewater from conventional oil and gas wells is to fracking wastewater, he says, “I see it as the utmost irony that New York banned fracking but allows disposal of brine on roads.”