Climate Corner: How much are you willing to tolerate?

Oct 15, 2022

Vic Elam

I am not a regular contributor to this column but found myself needing to express my concerns after a nearby event came to my attention. On Sept. 8 a brine truck carrying what was reported as drilling brine with zinc salts crashed on or near Mountaineer Highway near New Martinsville spilling 1260 gallons into a yard and a creek that leads to Little Fishing Creek which, of course leads to the Ohio River. Given the number of miles these brine trucks seem to travel in our part of the world it seems inevitable that these types of incidents are going to happen periodically. My concerns stem from the nature of the contents of these trucks and seeming lack of concern for this material entering our environment.

You don’t have to look far to find that the average level of radiation in the brine carried by these trucks is about 10 times the environmental discharge limit and 236 times the drinking water limit established by the EPA. Then you consider all the other contaminants like zinc, cadmium, arsenic, lead, benzene, and hundreds of others, it seems to be a witches brew unfit for any level of human or environmental exposure.

If this was an oil spill, measures would have been immediately deployed to contain the spill and clean it up, not so for brine spills. Brine is heavier than water, so the damage that is occurring beneath the surface is not apparent to us. Petrochemical-related facilities are already permitted to discharge over 500,000 pounds of toxic pollutants into the Ohio River Basin within Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia annually, so these spills just add to the already contaminated waters that serve us as a source of recreation and millions as a source of drinking water.


The reason brine spills are not treated with the same level of concern as oil spills may stem from the fact that brine is not considered a hazardous material even though it easily meets the standards. In 1988, political will urged by the petroleum industry forced the USEPA to exempt many substances used or produced by the petroleum industry from regulatory oversight. Since brine is not considered a hazardous material, haul trucks don’t require placarding and clean-up efforts are of little concern.

I could go into great depths about the impact “brine” will have to bottom dwelling organisms that form the basis for the food web in streams but suffice to say it is devastating.

There is little doubt that spills resulting from transporting brine are not the only source of brine contamination in the Ohio Valley, and frankly these types of spills may pale in comparison to other sources. Fracking waste that finds its way through fissures and comes to the surface or contaminates water supply aquifers, surfaces through old unplugged wells, or spills from pipelines or other sources have been documented.

The Mid-Ohio Valley was blessed with plentiful, clean water and little by little we seem determined to squander this vital resource. Let us not be complacent until it is too late and lament as in the well-known expression “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink” – or as my grandfather would say, “nary a drop to drink.”

Thanks to many fact sources especially


Vic Elam is an avid outdoorsman and contributor to organizations that share his concern for our environment and the children who we borrow it from.