The Thin Line between Ingenuity and Ridiculousness—between a Brainstorm and a Brainfart: Addendum 1

In my original post with this title, I applauded the use of cheese brine—the wastewater from the cheese-making process—to keep more road salt on Wisconsin roadways during the winter months. Apparently this innovation has been replicated in a wide variety of ways in a number of other snow-belt states. So, like the seemingly ridiculous concept of “pedal taverns,” the appeal of this ingenious repurposing of what would otherwise be “waste” seems to have transcended state boundaries.

In New York and Pennsylvania, the wastewater from the refining process that reduces sugar beets to sugar is being mixed with the road salt. In Massachusetts, the wastewater from molasses production is being used. And in several states with large potato crops, tests are being conducted with “potato juice.” In some instances, proponents of these “brines” believe that they not only make more of the salt adhere to the roadways but they also enhance the usefulness of the salt. Normally, road salts do not work as effectively when the temperature drops below 16 degrees. At least some of the brines may allow the salts to be effective until temperatures fall as low as -25 degrees.

Of course, even the most determined optimist knows that nothing good ever remains unspoiled. Human ingenuity very predictably falls victim to perverse, if not nefarious, human impulses.

In Massachusetts, Chemical Solutions, Inc., a company that has been at the forefront of the research and development of “ice-melting products,” is according to its president, Rob English, investigating the efficacy of using wastewater from fracking operations in such products.

That seems absolutely unbelievable to me.

Fracking wastewater is now being injected into deep wells—that is, wells that extend below the bedrock, which is especially thick and uniform under much of Ohio and has positioned the state to become, in at least one commentator’s estimate, the largest wastewater importer in the world. The process has been in use at chemical plants for decades, and although I am not sure whether anyone is—or can—track where the wastewater is migrating more than a mile below the surface, to date there have been no flagrant problems associated with the process. But the dramatically broader scale on which fracking is being done makes the previous experience with and conclusions about the efficacy of deep-well injections almost completely moot.

On the other hand, the alternatives to deep-well injections, such as dumping the wastewater into abandoned mines or waterways, are indisputably damaging to the environment and to nearby communities—not to mention criminally irresponsible, although the documented number of “incidents” of such illegal “dumping” has far exceeded the prosecutions or even financial penalties imposed for such offenses.

The wastewater produced in the fracking process is especially concerning because the companies  engaged in fracking have been very resistant to identifying the chemicals that they are using, arguing that the particular mixtures of chemicals constitute valuable proprietary information that provides them with advantages over their competitors. And we know from the recent, massive chemical spill in West Virginia that our increasingly loose oversight of the chemical industry has come to mean that we do not even know the specific hazards posed by many of the compounds that have been developed over the last three or four decades.

In such a context, the idea that such wastewater would be mixed with road salt and spread across our roadways, where it will presumably increase human exposure to those chemicals, while also affecting wildlife and contaminating run-off onto our cropland and into our water supplies seems so counterintuitive as to be manifestly unconscionable.

Now, it is possible that companies such as Chemical Solutions, Inc., are looking at ways to remove the toxic chemicals from the fracking wastewater before using it to enhance de-icing. But such a process would surely be expensive, and a large part of the appeal in using all of the other kinds of wastewater is that they are, literally, freely available. Moreover, if the toxic chemicals were removed from the fracking wastewater, wouldn’t that leave something close to basic water, and how would mixing that water with road salt serve to reduce icing?

I am not a scientist, but it seems to me fairly obvious that the main benefits to re-using fracking wastewater for other applications are that it is available in increasing large volumes and the companies producing it would jump at any opportunity to dispose of it in ways less expensive than deep-well injections. So, the financial benefits to those companies are clear, but I cannot identify any comparable benefits to the general public.

The problem with our typically black-and-white conception of public ethics is that anything that does not rise to the level of being universally condemned achieves, by default, a sort of legitimacy, and that legitimacy then becomes the basis for justifying the expansive extension of many practices and policies that are, at best, very dubious in themselves. As a consequence, we rather quickly compound the damaging consequences of broadly detrimental practices and policies that serve special interests, and we make it all the more complicated and difficult to reverse them. Even a very tentative acknowledgement of their legitimacy eventually feeds a public abdication to their seeming necessity and irreversibility, an acceptance of the seemingly inevitable that is typically aggressively reinforced in the public discourse by the special interests that are profiting at the public expense.

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