Fracking Brine doesn’t belong on our roads
Siri Lawson V. Dep and Hydro transport
The Lawsons township, Farmington Township, had recently got an approval from the DEP to spread “brine” on their roads for dust suppression.
This “Brine” contains mostly conventional and unconventional natural gas drilling waste water.
Waste water from all natural gas drilling has been known to contain radioactive radium 226 and 228.
This was happening on dirt roads all across Pennsylvania and is still happening on roads in Ohio.
Our case aimed to prove that the PA DEP didn’t have authority to permit this kind of activity.
Before we could file a motion, the PA DEP issued a moratorium on all approvals for brine road spreading, which is still in effect.
The case was dismissed as moot because they agreed with our legal argument in their written motion to dismiss.
The problem started in 2011. “I was at the kitchen sink looking down on the road and here comes this frack truck…he was dumping something on the road. Well, we learned this is called brine spreading and it started happening every day. Then twice nightly at 2:00 and 4:00 in the morning,” Siri Lawson remembers. What happened was the Department of Environmental Protection began permitting the free spreading of fracking brine wastewater on dirt roads in rural Pennsylvania, claiming it was an affordable dust suppressant.
Even today much is still unknown about the brine road spreading. We know that it contains elevated levels of Radium 226, a radioactive isotope that can build up in the environment if uncontrolled. The PA DEP cited its use for dust-control and road stabilization as “beneficial” reasons for this liquid disposal. In the Lawsons’ case, the physical reaction to brine spreading proved to be disastrous and extremely dangerous. Siri has suffered swelling of her eyes, ears, tongue, irritation in her sinuses, as well as burning of her skin. Wayne was impacted too. Tragically, a year after the brine spreading began, he suffered back to back heart attacks, which he is still recovering from. Just after getting a stent implanted, the cardiologist told him his condition was associated with pollution exposure. According to Siri as well as her neighbors, in some cases brine was being spread on roads so heavily that it would stream directly into local streams, ditches, and ponds. The same streams and ponds that local Amish children would play in.
In June of 2017 Siri began working with Fair Shake resident attorney Rose Monahan and together they began the process of challenging a one of her township’s authorizations for brine road spreading, changing the bleak landscape for Siri’s fight against her township and the DEP.
In an initial letter to the township, Fair Shake requested the township cease and desist from spreading brine on township roads. Rose pointed out brine road spreading was contrary to the township’s legal obligations under Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law, the Federal Clean Water Act and common law due to its negative impacts to environmental and human health
“I remember reading that letter and it was like poetry to me.”
- Siri Lawson
But the township didn’t stop. So, together, we wrote and filed an official appeal to the Environmental Hearing Board (EHB). The appeal challenged DEP’s authority to allow brine road spreading activities under the same laws mentioned in the townships letter and argued that the lack of such authority should result in the invalidation of Hydro Transports’ approval plan, which functioned as its permit to spread brine.
Siri and Rose also applied for and received a $10,000 grant from the impact fund to hire legal experts to bolster our case in the courtroom. This is a necessary and expensive process and yet another reason why a lot of people struggle to get access to the justice they need. In environmental cases our legal opinion often rests on our expert witness’s opinion. Our expert Paul A. Rubin, a hydrogeologist, formed a report showing undeniable evidence that Hydro Transport was dumping water with significant particulate matter. This was what they needed to prove that the DEP was in violation of the Solid Waste Management Act.
Just before these reports could be submitted to the court, the DEP did something no one expected: they agreed with us. They issued a state-wide moratorium on brine road spreading and filed a motion to dismiss the case (also viewable below, pg. 8 second paragraph), which admitted they lacked authority to issue approval plans.
In August of 2017 Hydro Transport’s approval lapsed and so the EHB judges dismissed the case as the issue was moot, saying the case and its legal arguments were highly unusual yet the plaintiff had essentially gotten what she wanted (the statewide ban).
Still today it remains clear that PA DEP lacks authority under its own environmental laws to approve brining plans. More importantly, Siri and Wayne could finally get the much need relief that the brining would stop. Finally, the Lawsons have been able to enjoy the peace and comfort of their home.
Unfortunately it was only after experiencing the physical ramifications of brine spreading in her hometown which have proven to be disastrous and extremely dangerous. Lawson has suffered enough and felt compelled to take action to protect themselves as well as their neighbors.
This case showed us that big impacts for public interests take full commitment from everyone involved. This case was an all out sprint for 4 months led by our clients passion to stop brining.
Siri showed us what communities in rural Pennsylvania go through. Siri and Wayne have been battling the oil and gas industry through 40 years, 3 homes, 100s of hours of doctors visits, 1000s of dollars in legal expenses, and unimaginable physical and emotional pain to get the justice she deserved. That should not have to happen. We learned that to solve our problem we need to build capacity to spread awareness of our services and take on more people in need.
For more about Siri and Wayne’s story check out our feature blog post.