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Let’s Not Coat Our Roads in Toxic Wastewater

Apparently this needs to be said.

Testing toxic water.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Betteridge’s law of headlines, as defined by the journalist Ian Betteridge, states that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” This is probably especially true of a headline like the one that ran on Jake Bolster’s recent story for Inside Climate News, which read “Should Toxic Wastewater From Gas Drilling Be Spread on Pennsylvania Roads as a Dust and Snow Suppressant?”

There are many red flags here, starting with “toxic” and “wastewater.” But it also speaks to a larger problem: Most of the fluid that comes out of the ground during oil and gas drilling operations is wastewater — more than 800 billion gallons a year — and we don’t really have a good solution for what to do with it. As I wrote last year, injecting the water back into the ground, which has been the go-to method for disposing of it in many places, has created earthquakes in both Texas and Oklahoma. And, as Inside Climate News also reported in a story yesterday, oil and gas companies have been spilling millions of gallons of the stuff in Texas, contaminating wells and poisoning cattle.

The water that comes out of the ground is briny stuff, so some bright minds in the oil and gas industry have been trying to sell regulators on the idea that it can replace road salt, which is itself bad for the environment. According to Grist, 13 states, including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan, allow for the "beneficial use" of wastewater, including for de-icing roads, and industry representatives are now trying to convince Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection to consider allowing its use in their state as well. But wastewater is more than just ancient, underground seawater — it also has benzene, arsenic, and the radioactive isotopes radium 226 and 228 riding in it.

Nobody in Pennsylvania is buying what the industry is selling. “It’s a terrible idea,” Bill Burgos, a professor of environmental engineering at Penn State, told Bolster. The wastewater, it turns out, washes right off the road without even suppressing dust. That still leaves the question of what to actually do with all that wastewater (here, perhaps, is where I point out that we wouldn’t have this problem if we, you know, stopped drilling for oil and gas).

As for the roads? Perhaps Pennsylvania should consider beets. It seems to be working for the Canadians.

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read More

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