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To Brine or Not to Brine, that is the Question

Pennsylvania's oil and gas industry, which traces its roots back to the 1800s just outside Titusville, holds a significant place in history. A byproduct of this industry, brine water, emerged as a practical solution for dust control on the dirt and gravel roads surrounding the oilfield operations. Its appeal was straightforward: It was easily accessible, cost-effective, and highly efficient. This method of dust control stood unchallenged for decades.

In 2018, the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board made a significant decision, voting to halt the use of brine water for dust control due to its environmental and health risks. This decision was based on extensive research that found high salt levels in the brine posed a threat to aquatic life, and some organic contaminants showed potential toxicity outcomes in human cells linked to liver cancer in animal experiments. The board's decision was in response to these findings and recognizing the need to protect public health and the environment.

This came as a shock to many of the rural municipalities that had relied upon this byproduct to maintain their roads in the summer months. Some even used it to wet their antiskid in order to melt ice and snow on the roads in the wintertime. A search for a suitable and affordable substitute came up futile, as alternatives like beet juice were just too expensive for municipalities’ shrinking budgets.

Several new techniques have been suggested as alternatives to salt brine. These include installing windbreaks like hedges, plants, fences, or berms to minimize the dust. Wetting the road prevents it from blowing away in the wind, but it doesn't last very long in dry areas. Water mixed with an additional coagulant will typically work better than just plain water. Reducing the speed limit will lower the amount of dust kicked up by traffic. However, this would require more speed enforcement capabilities, and most small municipalities in Pennsylvania rely upon the State Police as their primary law enforcement agency.

A new bill is scheduled to be introduced in the state legislature, that would reinstate the use of brine, with some new regulations – including restricting brine from being spread within 150 feet of a body of water, and clarifying that municipalities are allowed to continue this practice of spreading brine, solely from the conventional industry, not from unconventionally fracked shale wells. Lawmakers who support this legislation believe it is a “win-win” for constituents – protecting health while also providing municipalities a cost-effective solution.

Will we once again be able to use brine for dust control with some added regulations? Many municipalities are counting on it. In this case, we will have to 'fire this thing up' and spread the word just like the brine.


 About the Author

David L. Anthony is a member of the Keystone Municipal Solutions team of experts. He is a veteran of municipal government, having served more than 33 years in various positions of public service. Contact him at To learn more about David and the Keystone Municipal Solutions team, click here.

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