Fracking Waste on NYS Roads: Why the Details Matter

Part II of a two-part story. Read Part I here.

Written by Sarah Crean and edited with Emily Manley

Author’s note: we have added more clarification to our discussion of volatile organic compounds and why they can be found in drilling waste.


As we reported recently, a fracking waste product is being spread on roads in western New York—with state approval—to melt ice and control dust.

The uproar over the issue—twelve counties have banned road spreading of “produced water,” and legislation outlawing the practice has been introduced in the State Senate—underscores New York’s economic and social divisions.

Re-use of produced water on local roads is occurring in shale-rich western New York, where oil and gas drilling has been a part of the local economy for over a century. The industry operates in mainly rural counties, such as Allegany and Chautauqua, that often have high poverty rates, a need for economic development, and municipalities struggling to provide basic services.

The counties that have banned road spreading—excluding Erie County—all lie to the east. In the broadest terms, they tend to have more affluence and economic diversity, particularly counties closest to New York City, like Westchester, Putnam and Suffolk.

How To Dispose of Waste?

In order to function, the oil and gas industry needs ways to dispose of waste generated by extraction activities. Enter the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), who is tasked with overseeing this industry, and whose mission is both to protect the state’s environmental health and promote economic development.

It is a complicated dance for one agency, as evidenced by the DEC’s approach to road spreading of produced water.

Released from shale formations by oil and gas drilling, produced water- or “production brine”- is considered an industrial waste product. While the liquid is high in salinity, it also contains heavy and/or toxic metals, traces of volatile compounds, and other contaminants. At least one of the compounds, benzene, is a known human carcinogen.

Since it’s industrial waste, state law requires that produced water be re-used in a way that “will not adversely affect human health and safety, the environment, and natural resources.”

Moreover, before produced water can be spread on roads by a municipality or private company, approval in the form of a “Beneficial Use Determination” (BUD) must be obtained from the state DEC.

A Confusing Mix of Standards

However, email exchanges with the state, along with a review of thirty BUDs issued between 2011 and 2013, revealed what appears to be a confusing mix of standards.

The approvals, obtained from the DEC by Riverkeeper and issued for sections of 12 counties, raise questions regarding the proximity of spraying to drinking water sources, the toxicity levels of the fluid used, and what the cumulative impact of years of application could be.

The DEC stressed that it evaluates the use of produced water on roads “on a case-by-case basis.”

DEC spokeswoman Charsleissa King told NYER that the agency “determines acceptable levels of these substances [like volatile organic compounds, which are found in produced water] depending on a number of factors including the number of applications, separation distances to groundwater sources, etc.”

Based on regulations it established, it appears that the DEC wants to monitor usage of produced water and control run-off into fields, wetlands, and other sensitive areas.

But it remains unclear how they ensure that local municipalities and highway departments follow state guidelines, and whether the guidelines themselves are sufficient.

Proximity to Water Sources

The BUDs released by the DEC typically show little to no detail regarding the proximity of road spreading activity to local ground and surface water sources.

In some cases, applicants submitted maps showing the location of spraying sites in relation to areas like wetlands. In others, there are no maps or the maps lack detail, and there is minimal discussion of local conditions.

In the cases of spreading for dust control, BUD applicants were asked to provide a letter attesting that they would not apply produced water “within 50 ft of a stream, creek, lake or other body of water; on sections of road having a grade exceeding 10 percent; or on wet roads, during rain, or when rain is imminent.”

Similarly, in its de-icing approvals, the DEC states that applicants must spray produced water “in a manner that prevents brine from flowing or running off into streams, creeks, lakes and other bodies of water.” It also refers applicants to the state Department of Transportation’s ice control regulations, which do not appear to address the question of run-off.

Why The Concern

Arguably the most straightforward way for contaminants to find their way to humans would be via surface and ground water that feeds drinking water reservoirs.

And it is not just a theoretical problem.

A 2005-07 study of Rockland County’s water supply by the U.S. Geological Survey found that, “application of road deicing salt(s) in the winter since the 1950s and 1960s, with subsequent downward leaching to groundwater, has resulted in major increases in chloride…in groundwater across much of the aquifer.”

It is possible that the BUDs obtained by Riverkeeper were incomplete and the state has actually done more analysis of water source locations. So far, the DEC has not responded to any of our follow-up questions.

Chemical testing of samples from the source of produced water—oil and gas wells, or gas storage—is also required for BUD approval. These tests are conducted by private labs and the results are submitted to the DEC by applicants.

Test results of produced water show the presence of trace amounts of the BTEX volatile organic cluster: benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene. Also appearing are heavy and/or toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead; oil and grease; and high levels of chloride.

Why does the state look at the BTEX cluster? According to the American Cancer Society, benzene is linked to cancers impacting blood cells, such as leukemia. Toluene is currently under review by both the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institutes of Health because of its potential impact on the human endocrinal system.

The EPA notes, “because it is a liquid that does not bind well to soil, toluene that makes its way into the ground can move through the ground and enter groundwater.”

Testing for Toxicity

The DEC told NYER that it currently uses the following standards for produced water for road uses: 0.5 milligrams/liter for benzene and 1.0 milligrams/liter each for toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. The DEC also told us that these standards are similar to those used by states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

West Virginia provides a clear, public list of “allowable levels” for a variety of potentially hazardous substances found in produced water sprayed on roads. We cannot find similar public standards in New York and asked the DEC about this, but they have not responded.

King explained that, “in some cases, the benzene content is allowed to be greater than 0.5 if the number of applications is limited. Benzene is volatile and is reduced significantly during storage, and application and has not been found to migrate to groundwater resources.”

We asked the DEC, in what locations would it be acceptable to spread produced water containing benzene and toluene, and in what locations would it not? And how does this standard relate to the numerical standards for benzene and toluene stated above?

It is important to note that included in the BUDs from the DEC was a rejection, issued because the agency determined that the level of BTEX contaminants in one application was too high (page 458).

In another case, the DEC authorized the use of produced water with a benzene level of 1.73 milligrams/liter and a toluene level of 1.77 milligrams/liter (page 89). This appears to be more than three times the benzene standard and nearly twice the toluene standard put forward by the state.

While the BUD was issued in 2011, the test results were from 2008. Additional testing was done in 2011, but not for benzene and toluene. State law does require the establishment of “procedures for periodic testing” of waste to be re-used but it is unclear what the procedure was here.

NYER followed up with the DEC, asking how the determination to approve the BUD was made in this case. They have not yet responded.

Cumulative Impact?

The state DEC told NYER that produced water has been used on roads in New York State “for decades” and that “generally, approvals do not require volume reporting.”

If produced water is used for de-icing, as opposed to dust control, however, it does appear from approval documents that the state requests an annual report on total number of gallons applied. Some of the BUDS contained this information, and others did not.

BUD approvals for dust control typically allowed between ten and twenty applications of produced water on roads. One applicant described a spraying rate of 2,000 gallons per mile.

NYER asked the DEC if they had done any follow-up testing on the effects of road spreading approved in the past, and whether they viewed the cumulative impact of applying produced water to roads as a concern.

They have not responded.

Martin Stute, a professor of environmental science at Barnard College and a scientist in the geo-chemistry division of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory observed that the movement of volatile organic compounds and “other [chemical] constituents”, from roads to surface waters that feed drinking water aquifers, was highly dependent on a number of factors, especially rainfall and proximity of water sources to roads.

Stute maintained that non-volatile compounds, such as mercury, “would more readily make it into water bodies”.

But, Stute argued, if volatile organic compounds like benzene and other contaminants were not “massively diluted” once they entered surface water sources, they could eventually reach hazardous levels. “No doubt about it,” he said.

Another factor was time, Stute noted. “Contaminants from the spreading of produced water, if applied over many years, could build up in groundwater,” he reiterated in a follow-up email. “Chloride concentrations [in drinking water supplies], for example, have increased significantly in parts of New York State as a result of roadsalt applications.”

One Sample, Multiple Wells

The DEC did not pass on lab results for a handful of the thirty BUDs issued between 2011 and 2013. Again, these tests may very well exist but, until they are released, nothing is known about what was spread on roads covered by these approvals.

At least ten of the BUDs appear to rely on only one set of test results from a sample provided by National Fuel Gas, a gas extraction, delivery, and utility company active in Western New York and Pennsylvania.

Groups like Riverkeeper have argued that the state’s practice of issuing a BUD based on a sample from one well in a gas field, when produced water from multiple wells may be involved, is inconclusive and potentially dangerous.

Stute agreed. “These substances [volatile organic compounds such as benzene and toluene, and other dissolved compounds] have a lot of variability,” he said.

“There is no way that the concentrations can all be the same,” he added.

“Produced Water” vs “Fracking Fluid”: a semantic debate with consequences

The state DEC views these volatile organic compounds as essentially naturally occurring, which helps the state justify their re-use on roads. King told NYER that, “benzene and toluene are naturally present in petroleum which is in contact with water in the ground. When the oil is pumped to the surface, the water comes with it containing dissolved traces of these volatile constituents.”

Stute said this was accurate, but added that benzene and toluene “are still hazardous”.

Stute noted that benzene and toluene could be found in both petroleum, and in fluids used for drilling. “If they are present in production water, it means that the hydrocarbon products were not properly separated,” he explained. And he pointed out that this separation process was “not easy”.

All of this ties into a broader dispute regarding the distinction drawn bythe DEC between “produced water” and spent fracking fluid, the water-chemical mix used to fracture shale. The portion of the spent drilling fluid which returns to the surface is known as “flowback.”

Some environmental groups argue that the distinction is questionable because both waste products come out of the same well; flowback rises first, and is followed by produced water. Prior to 2009, New York State permitted road spreading of flowback. The practice is now forbidden.

These questions are all part of a much larger puzzle said Katherine Nadeau, policy director for Environmental Advocates, a watchdog group based in Albany.

The fundamental issue, Nadeau said, was “how the state requires drillers of oil and gas wells to dispose of the waste that they’re producing.”

As Snow Melts, Movement Builds to Ban Use of Drilling Waste on NYS Roads

Part I of a two-part story. Read Part II here.

A fracking waste product is being spread on roads in western New York, prompting a growing number of counties to outlaw the practice, and sparking a call for a state-wide ban.

The state argues that the practice has been carried out safely for years, and should not be associated with high-volume hydrofracking activities carried out in other parts of the country.

Why the concern? The waste, known as “produced water” or “production brine,” is naturally occurring, but contains heavy metals, traces of volatile compounds, and other contaminants. It is being sprayed by local municipalities—with state approval—on roads to melt ice and control dust.

Of equal concern is the fact that the state has acknowledged that they are not tracking how much produced water is being spread on roads.

[“Produced water” should not be confused with the mix of water and chemicals that is forced down wells at high pressure to fracture shale formations and release gas. Some of that water-chemical mix, “flowback,” returns to the surface and is a different type of fracking waste.]

Lawmakers and environmental groups maintain that despite state guidelines for the spraying, there is always the risk that produced water can drain from roads into wetlands, agricultural fields and surface water supplies, or even become airborne. Some of the volatile compounds found in produced water—like benzene—are carcinogenic.

“Something that is well-known and has been documented…to potentially contain a carcinogen should not be spread on our roadways,” said Kate Hudson, the Watershed Program Director for Hudson Riverkeeper.

Produced water can also contain naturally occurring radioactive materials, depending on the shale formation from which it is released.

Allowed “For Decades”

Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman Charsleissa King said that the state had been permitting the use of produced water as a road de-icer and dust stabilizer “for decades,” but had established its current method of regulating the activity in 2009.

The DEC, the state’s lead environmental agency, says that a primary objective is “to ensure that the environmental impact of resource extraction will be mitigated to the greatest extent possible.”

“The DEC reviews the use of brine…on a case-by-case basis to avoid environmental impacts to sensitive locations such as state forest areas, wetlands and surface water bodies,” King added.

NYER asked the DEC if they had done any follow-up testing on the effects of spreading produced water in the past, and whether the frequency of the practice has changed. We have not yet received a response.

A Special Exemption

Despite the fact that produced water is considered a fracking waste product, the state has regulatory authority, through issuance of “Beneficial Use Determinations,” to allow its re-use as a road “stabilizer” and “de-icer.”

Lawmakers say that the only reason why produced water can be re-used is because of a loophole favoring the oil and gas industry.

“Although this waste is hazardous and in fact exceeds the legal criteria for hazardous waste classification, it is categorized as ‘industrial’ under federal and state laws as a result of special exemptions given to the oil and gas industry,” note the authors of a pending bill that would ban its use across New York.

“These exemptions eliminate tracking requirements for its handling, storage, treatment and disposal,” concluded State Senators Terry Gipson, Martin Dilan, George Latimer, John Sampson, and Cecilia Tkaczyk, all Democrats.

From the Finger Lakes to Lake Erie

Click here to see a larger version.
Click here to see a larger version.

While the DEC told NYER that, “generally, [state] approvals [for the spreading of produced water] do not require volume reporting,” it is possible to get a sense of who is seeking permission for the practice and why.

Over a two-year period, from June 2011 to July 2013, road spreading of produced water was approved in over 30 municipalities, spanning twelve New York State counties, according to documents obtained from the DEC by Hudson Riverkeeper.

The produced water came from both oil and gas wells, and natural gas storage. National Fuel Gas, a gas extraction, delivery, and utility company active in western New York and Pennsylvania, supplied produced water to several of the applicants to the DEC.

Applicants for a “Beneficial Use Determination” from the DEC ranged from drilling and construction companies to individual towns to the state’s Department of Transportation. According to correspondence between the applicants and the DEC, the produced water was to be used for road stabilization, dust control, and de-icing.

The DEC issued BUDs for road spreading of produced water from wells and/or natural gas storage in sections of Wyoming, Erie, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Genessee, Niagrara, Steuben, Allegany, Chemung, Schuyler, Yates, and Seneca, which is in the heart of the Finger Lakes.

Details on the amount of produced water to be used appeared sporadically in the four-hundred plus pages of documents, and varied widely. As an example, the state’s Department of Transportation noted that it had used 1.3 million gallons of produced water for de-icing in Chautauqua County between 2010 and 2011.

More than one municipality said that they wished to use produced water as a de-icer because it was a cheaper alternative to salt. “Brine is free to the town and constitutes a great savings to taxpayers,” stated the highway superintendent from the town of Gerry in Chautauqua.

The Dilemma: What to do with the state’s drilling waste?

The state reports that there are currently about 14,000 oil, gas and solution salt mining wells in New York. And the extraction of oil and gas “contributes half a billion dollars to the state’s economy each year,” says the state DEC.

While high-volume hydraulic fracturing is currently subject to a moratorium in New York State, low-volume natural gas fracking, which uses less fresh water, continues.

Drillers—and the state—must find ways to dispose of two distinct liquid fracking wastes.

“Flowback,” the portion of the water-chemical mix used in fracking that returns to the surface, cannot be applied on roads. The state requires that it “must be disposed of at [wastewater treatment] facilities authorized by the Department [of Environmental Conservation] or transported for use or re-use at other gas or oil wells where acceptable…”

Nine New York State counties—Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Albany, Erie, Onondaga, Orange, Suffolk and Nassau—have now banned all types of fracking waste from local wastewater treatment plants.

“Produced water” or brine, is released by the fracturing of the shale itself. This underground fluid has an extremely high salt content because the shale formations under western New York were formed by deposits from an ancient ocean.

Produced water contains naturally occurring contaminants, such as heavy and/or toxic metals like arsenic, lead and mercury, along with radioactive materials, depending on the shale formation. The state will not permit road spreading of produced water from the Marcellus Shale, for example, without further testing, presumably because of concerns about radioactivity.

Produced water also contains traces of a cluster of volatile organic compounds, known as “BTEX,” benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, which are found in petroleum products. At least one of these compounds, benzene, is a known human carcinogen.

The state has acknowledged the presence of benzene and toluene, a substance currently under study for its impact on the human endocrinal system, in produced water. DEC spokeswoman, Charsleissa King, told NYER that the agency’s standards for acceptable levels of the two volatile compounds are “consistent with those used in Pennsylvania, Michigan and West Virginia.”

Local Governments Take Action

It is not totally clear, if the road spreading of produced water has been permitted for decades, why there is such an outcry about the practice now. But it is undeniable that the state as a whole is far more aware of drilling activity because of the possibility that high-volume fracking could be permitted in New York.

At least 12 counties have moved to ban the spreading of produced water on local roads, including Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Albany, Erie, Onondaga, Orange, Suffolk, Ulster, Oneida, Tomkins, and Orange.

Erie County Executive, Mark Poloncarz, reportedly stated that he could not “discount the overwhelming support of such a ban by the public and members of the Legislature—Democrat, Republican, and Independent.”

And a group of state legislators, led by Senator Terry Gipson of Dutchess County, have introduced legislation that would enact a state-wide ban on the application of fracking waste to roads.

Gipson’s Communications Director, Jonathan Heppner, noted that the Senator’s district was heavily agricultural. A section of Dutchess County also lies within the New York City watershed, and the county contains other significant watersheds.

Heppner said that Senator Gipson was deeply concerned about “even the possibility that [chemical compounds in fracking waste] could run into farmers’ fields or the watershed.”

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Emily Manley helped to edit this story and produced the graphics.

Part II: more on the potential public health impacts of environmental exposure to volatile organic compounds; more questions for the state regarding its Beneficial Use Determinations; and why the drilling industry argues re-use of produced water is beneficial for the environment.

Mayor de Blasio Comes Out Against Fracking Across New York State

During a q & a session with reporters after giving remarks today at a plenary session of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made the following statement:

“My purview is the five boroughs of New York City and I try to work closely with the state government but I also appreciate that they have to make decisions on behalf of the whole state. The one thing I am firm about is that I don’t see any place for fracking. The science simply isn’t reliable enough. The technology isn’t reliable enough. And, there’s too much danger to our water supply, to our environment in general.

So my view is that there should be a moratorium on fracking in New York State until the day comes that we can actually prove it’s safe and I don’t think that day is coming any time soon.”

Update:

Bill de Blasio made similar statements while Public Advocate. In an August 27th, 2013 interview with blogger Eric Walton, de Blasio said the following:

“I believe strongly in the moratorium on fracking. I think it is abundantly clear that the technology is far from perfected. There are incredible dangers associated with fracking that could have a lasting impact on our water supply in particular, beyond just the city water shed, but anywhere it’s being done. And so I think the moratorium is necessary and I don’t think the moratorium should be lifted until these issues are resolved, if they are ever resolved.”

The Promised Land: A Small Town’s Struggle With Hydrofracking

The remains of abandoned farm houses mark the rolling hills and woodlands of the Town of Oxford in the southern tier of upstate New York.

It is here, and in other rural communities in the state, that the most hard-fought regional environmental battle of this generation is playing out — whether to allow the contentious form of natural gas drilling, known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing entails the pressurized injection of hundreds of thousands of gallons of fresh water mixed with sand, lubricants and other chemicals deep below the surface of the earth, in order to “fracture” shale formations and release gas.

Because the shale is located below underground water sources, some scientists —including those affiliated with the City of New York — have questioned whether methane or drilling fluid could be inadvertently released and cause water contamination. Drilling proponents maintain that drilling technology and well construction continue to advance; they also say that fracked natural gas could help the U.S. obtain energy independence.

[Read more at Gotham Gazette]

Is the DEC Prepared For Hydraulic Fracturing?

While the Cuomo administration has not been definitive about its plans for hydrofracking recently, it is also unclear whether the state is adequately prepared to manage natural gas drilling and protect local drinking water supplies.

The Governor declined to mention drilling in the Marcellus Shale when he made his State of the State address on January 4th despite the fact that the written version of his address discusses hydraulic fracturing in the state’s Southern Tier, where the largest deposits of natural gas are believed to exist. The state’s 2012 budget does not include revenue or costs related to hydraulic fracturing activity.

The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the state agency that would issue drilling permits and oversee drilling related activity, received a 9% funding increase in 2012, but no allocations for new staff. The Cuomo administration did not respond to several requests for comment for this story.

[Read more at Gotham Gazette]

Will Community Bans on Hydrofracking Hold Up?

Communities across the state have passed legislation banning the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing. The movement brings up questions of home rule and is being followed closely by the natural gas industry.

Cuomo administration efforts to open the New York State section of the Marcellus Shale to drilling will require hydraulic fracturing, which critics say poses a serious threat to the safety of surface and underground water sources, and causes other environmental problems. Advocates of the process say it will boost upstate economies.

According to a list compiled by Keuka Citizens Against Hydrofracking, fifty-four upstate communities spanning 14 counties and including the cities of Albany and Buffalo- have permanently banned or placed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and related activities within their boundaries. And more bans are on the way. Six upstate counties (Dutchess, Onondaga, Ontario, Sullivan, Tompkins and Ulster) have banned hydraulic fracturing on all county-owned lands. The practice is already restricted from the New York City and Syracuse watersheds.

[Read more at Gotham Gazette]

City Wants Answers, Input On Upstate Drill Plan

New York State sits atop what may be one of the world’s greatest supplies of natural gas, at a time when climate concerns have increased demand for it, when advanced technology has made it more accessible and when Albany is hungry for new economic opportunities.

That’s why in a draft State Energy Report issued last month, Governor David Paterson said the upstate gas reserve “presents an opportunity for the State to unlock substantial economic value while helping to achieve a key energy policy objective of importance to the state’s energy security.”

But a broad coalition of upstate environmental groups, local community boards and elected officials from City Hall to Washington has emerged to resist plans to extract that subterranean fuel until key environmental questions are addressed. The reason? Some of the state’s underground treasure of natural gas is located under and around another precious resource: New York City’s water supply system.

[Read more at City Limits]