Concerns about hydrofracking – which does not occur in New York State – are overflowing into worries about the decades-long practice of using production brine from traditional oil and gas wells as a de-icing agent on wintry roads.
In information released last week, the Riverkeeper environmental group near the Hudson River contends that the state has approved the use of “fracking” brine on roads in several Western New York municipalities and counties.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation and local highway officials say that is not the case.
“There is confusion,” said George P. Spanos, director of public facilities in Chautauqua County, which along with Erie, Cattaraugus and Wyoming counties are allowed to use the salt water. “We use brine from traditional oil and gas wells. We have been doing it for a very long time.”
Chautauqua County has about 10,000 oil and gas wells, and Spanos said all the liquid used by his department comes from New York. He said that it is used only in specific areas, such as intersections, and is provided free to the county by energy companies.
That production brine – a byproduct of gas extraction from vertical wells – can be applied to roads in the state only with approval by the DEC, but environmentalists question how rigorous the state’s standards are for approval.
DEC spokeswoman Lisa King responded in a statement this week that said, in part, “Each application (to use the brine) requires identification of the source of production fluid, analysis of its chemical composition, spreading methodology and equipment, and the designated road or area for spreading. … If excessive levels of petroleum-related volatile contaminants such as benzene and toluene are found, a beneficial use request will be denied.”
A statement released Tuesday by Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper said the group is concerned about the “lack of control and monitoring associated with current use of shallow-well brine for road application” and said the DEC’s testing process was not adequate to capture fluctuations that can occur in the chemicals in the brine.
“More robust testing, monitoring and regulation is needed,” the local Riverkeeper statement said.
In its release last week, the Hudson-area Riverkeeper reported that the DEC results did indicate the presence of benzene and toluene in some tested samples. “Benzene is a carcinogen and has been linked to blood disorders such as anemia, while toluene has been linked to nervous system, kidney and liver problems,” it noted.
The Erie County Legislature is scheduled to vote Thursday on the banning of hydrofracking on county property and the use of hydrofracking brine – not regular production brine – on county roads. If the measure passes, the county will join at least nine other counties and various municipalities in the state that have already approved such measures in case the state eventually approves hydrofracking for natural gas.