Does the West Virginia Division of Highways use fracking waste to treat our roadways before bad weather? I am happy to report that they do not.
I asked the question myself after coming across a Dec. 2011 memorandum of agreement between the highways office and the state Division of Water and Waste Management that spelled out the parameters under which salt brine from gas wells could be used to treat the roads across our beautiful state.
The agreement showed that acceptable levels of barium, lead, benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene, among other things could be spread on our roads at the rate of 100 gallons per lane mile for de-icing. As a clean water advocate, I became queasy at the thought.
According to District 8 DOH Maintenance Engineer Travis Ray, the highways office did indeed test salt brine from a gas well on Jefferson County roads, and on Clarksburg and Morgantown roads in the winter of 2010. Some of you may remember 2010 was a big year for snow.
The test was prompted when local DOH road crews noticed great results in neighboring states from using this type of brine and after guidelines and parameters were reached between the Department of Environmental Protection and DOH.
The agreement did specify that hydraulic fracturing return fluids associated with horizontal or vertical gas wells were not permitted for use on West Virginia roads. This is important as the Marcellus Shale formation is known to have very high levels of radium-226, much higher than any other shale formations across the country. The salt brine used was from a shallow gas well that had not been drilled on the Marcellus by hydraulic fracking.
The DEP found one gas well north of Charleston in the Elkview area that met the standards for content. The salt brine from this well could be purchased at 5 cents a gallon. The only problem was the cost to ship this brine across our state to the Eastern Panhandle was very high. The state did pay for the shipping to test the product, however it was later found to be too costly to do this on a regular basis. Bids were put out to the gas companies in an effort to find a reliable source closer to the Eastern Panhandle. There were no other wells that met the specifications. Many natural gas companies were thrilled at the thought of selling their wastewater to the state for use on our roads, but they did not meet the guidelines specified by the DEP.
The testing on Interstate 81, U.S. 340 and W.Va. 9 did prove to DOH, however, that the method for spreading the brine was much more cost efficient than rock salt and stone, which tend to work their way off the roadways, while spreading brine allows DOH to apply the product directly to the road surface with no waste or overspray.
The test did spur DOH to purchase brine makers for the mixing of rock salt and calcium chloride. The black ribbons of liquid that appear on our roads before snow events is made of the rock salt and calcium chloride and not of any sort of fracking waste or salt brine from gas wells. Jefferson County DOH Supervisor Rodney Crowell reports that this mixture keeps the snow and ice from adhering to the road, making removal a much easier task.
I consider this story good news for our watersheds here in Jefferson County. Our DEP and DOH are obviously working hard to try to keep our environment as clean as possible, and have not fallen into the trap that many states have as they face the issue of dealing with the millions of gallons of wastewater that is created by hydraulic fracking.
But what is being done with all of that wastewater?
Clean water is injected into the wells during fracking. This water is mixed with drilling slurries containing 596 chemicals, and returns to the surface contaminated with the drilling slurries and the other elements released as the drill passes through. As other states have found, this waste water is quite corrosive to ecosystems and detrimental to ground water supplies.
Where is the wastewater going? Municipal wastewater treatment plants are barely to standard with current regulations, let alone testing and treating for the byproducts of hydraulic fracking. Are there large holding ponds allowing the water to evaporate, leaving a toxic slurry behind? There are many horror stories in other states concerning practices for disposing of this wastewater. Some of these practices are legal and some are not. Hopefully, the DEP has shown the same diligence on this matter as it has concerning road treatments from gas wells.
The Marcellus Shale in the Eastern Panhandle is not conducive to hydraulic fracking. However, hydraulic fracking and its toxic waste water has the potential to find us. After all, we are all downstream.
— Ronda Lehman is the chairwoman of the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition. She lives in Harpers Ferry. She can be reached at R30nik@aol.com. The website for the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition is Blueridgewatershed.org.