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New York state spreads brine from underground gas storage onto highways, including those in Tompkins and Broome counties, to keep drivers safe, but that practice could have its own health consequences.
According to Riverkeeper, a Hudson Valley-based environmental advocacy group:
•The brine is inadequately tested for radioactive material before it’s spread onto highways, with approval based on tests for radioactive material conducted 15 years ago.
•The salt-water solution can find its way into drinking water supplies from highway run-off.
•The mixture has a carcinogenic chemical that exceeds Environmental Protection Agency standards for drinking water.
State Department of Transportation officials counter that the salt-water mixture is safe and approved by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Further, brine can form a protective barrier on roads that stops snow and ice accumulation, and it can help rock salt stick to asphalt.
“It helps plows keep up when there is heavy snowfall,” DOT spokesman Beau Duffy said.
DOT crews in Tompkins and Broome counties get their brine from a gas storage cavern in Harford, a Cortland County town about 20 miles east of Ithaca. The mixture can be known as “storage brine,” Duffy said.
The state spreads an average of 80,000 gallons of storage brine annually on state roads in Tompkins County, Duffy said. It spreads around 33,000 gallons on state roads in Broome County.
State crews also spread the storage brine in Cayuga, Chautauqua, Cortland, Onondaga and Seneca counties.
“(DEC) tested it, and it’s been deemed safe for us to use,” Duffy said. “We wouldn’t be able to use it without their permission.”
Environmentalists say the state hasn’t done enough to assure the storage brine is safe to use.
They point out that the DEC doesn’t know the radiation content of all storage brine that DOT spreads, and the substance can contain toxins at levels that exceed EPA safe drinking water standards.
“I don’t think that people should be reassured at all. I’m not,” said Misti Duvall, a staff attorney for Riverkeeper.
Riverkeeper obtained storage brine testing results from the DEC, and the testing did not include results for NORM, or naturally occurring radioactive material, Duvall said. The DEC doesn’t require NORM testing for brine, she said.
Without that data, Duvall said, it’s unclear how much radioactive material is dispersed when state trucks spread storage brine.
“If this is something that has been looked at by DEC, and NORM is not a concern, then we need to know why that is,” she said. “If it’s something that could be potentially a concern, there should be individual testing for NORM there as well.”
The DEC results showed that the storage brine contained benzene, a carcinogen that has been linked to blood disorders such as anemia; toluene, a chemical that has been linked to nervous system, kidney and liver problems; and chloride, a water contaminant that affects water taste, color and odor but is not considered a risk to human health.
“The concern is that you don’t want to see any of those getting into your drinking water at all,” Duvall said.
In the DEC storage-brine testing results, benzene levels ranged from 0.053 to 0.036 milligrams per liter; toluene ranged from 0.011 to 0.006 milligrams; and chloride ranged from 209,000 to 220,000 milligrams per liter, she said.
There are 1,000 milligrams in one gram.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level for benzene in drinking water is 0.005 milligrams per liter, and it’s 1 milligram per liter for toluene. Chloride is regulated by non-mandatory maximum levels of 250 milligrams per liter.
“When you put brine on the roadways, a lot of time, it does run off,” Duvall said. “If there are water supplies nearby, it can run into those water supplies.”
The high levels of chloride can increase salinity in waterways and harm wildlife, she added. The corrosive substance also can increase wear on vehicles and road infrastructure, such as bridges, she added.
Brine from gas drilling
Until 2012, DOT Region 6 crews spread “well-production brine,” which is brine that flowed up from New York state gas and oil wells.
The well-production brine was spread in Allegany, Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Tioga and Yates counties, according to Duffy. DOT stopped spreading the well-production brine after purchasing brine-making equipment, he added.
State crews never spread well-production brine in the Tompkins or Broome region, Duffy said.
Duvall argued that well-production brine has great potential to contain NORM, and the DEC needs to test for it.
“When a well is producing oil and gas, and you have that production brine coming up, you’re not just getting the fluids (that) went down initially, and you’re not just getting the oil and gas,” she said.
Every substance that’s down there is also flowing up, including NORM, she said.
The well-production brine test results that Riverkeeper obtained from the DEC showed no testing for NORM.
But the DEC did give Riverkeeper a single well-production brine test that showed benzene and toluene levels — 1.730 and 1.77 milligrams per liter, respectively, Duvall said.
Instead of testing well-production brine for NORM, the state bases its policy on test results published 15 years ago.
That round of testing, done after radioactive contamination of drilling waste was observed in other parts of the world, looked for radium isotopes in brine and other material associated with 74 gas and oil wells in upstate New York.
The study found that most brine, drilling equipment and other material sampled was at background levels for radioactivity, or just above, though several brine samples were appreciably higher than that.
The DEC concluded that spreading well-production brine posed no radiological risk, even to someone who walked almost every day for 20 years on a dirt road regularly treated with brine.
Man-made brine, a solution
When the DOT stopped spreading well-production brine in parts of New York, it wasn’t because of environmental concerns, but because the agency was looking to save money, Duffy said.
Man-made brine is cheaper because it doesn’t need to be trucked in from gas wells, he said.
“Our use of natural well brine has been decreasing and will continue to decrease as we mix more of our own,” Duffy said. The man-made brine is a mixture of 23 percent rock salt and 77 percent water.
In Chemung County, state crews spread man-made brine, and RiverKeeper said the solution is safer.
“That brine is just salt and water, and we do recognize that there are benefits to using brine rather than using rock salt on the roads,” Duvall said.
Though storage brine is spread on state routes that run through Broome County, the county highway department has found that pure rock salt and sand are the best materials to keep roadways clear in the winter.
“The county had tried brine in the past but got away from it years ago because they didn’t feel it was effective,” said Broome County Communications Coordinator Gabe Osterhout.
Tompkins considers ban
Tompkins County Legislator Dan Klein, D-Danby, said he’s planning to bring forward a law in March that would ban the spread of storage and well-production brine on all roads that pass through the county.
The law could affect highway departments throughout Tompkins County, but it’s unclear whether the legislation would stop the state DOT.
Duffy said it’s hard to say whether the DOT would heed the law, because it’s hypothetical at this point.
“Based on case law, we believe such a ban would not apply to the state highway system,” he said after talking with DOT lawyers.
If the law is passed, it’s likely that the most Tompkins could do is ask the state to stop spreading storage-brine on roads that pass through the county, Klein said.
“We might be able to claim that we have jurisdiction over the state, but on a practical level, there’s way no way to enforce that. We’re not going to sue the state; we’re not going to fine the state,” Klein said after talking with the county attorney.
“In the end, we might not actually be able to do anything about it,” he said.
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle staff writer Steve Orr contributed to this report.
Follow Andrew Casler on Twitter: @AndrewCasler
•The state Department of Transportation spreads brine on state roads that comes from gas storage facilities, and testing has showed elevated levels of toxic materials.
•Environmentalists warn that the brine could pollute drinking water through runoff and storm events.
•The DEC is basing its safety approval in storage brine on 15-year-old tests for radioactive material.
By the numbers
EPA drinking water standards
•Benzene: Below 0.005 milligrams per liter.
•Toluene: Below 1 milligram per liter.
•Naturally occurring radioactive materials: Unknown.
•Benzene: 0.053 to 0.036 milligrams per liter.
•Chloride: 209,000 to 220,000 milligrams per liter.
•Naturally occurring radioactive materials: Unknown.
•Benzene: 1.73 milligrams per liter.*
•Toluene: 1.77 milligrams per liter.*
Source: Levels based on New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Freedom of Information Law documents obtained by Riverkeeper.
*DEC supplied test results for only one well.
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