This, paraphrased, is the message the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued in a statement late last week. And it captures the kind of regulatory dilemma-turned-PR-migraine that state agencies throughout the country face as they play a game of catch-up overseeing the burgeoning shale gas industry.
Radioactivity is one of many questions about constituents of the waste stream from high volume hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking), a technique for fracturing bedrock with a pressurized chemical solution that has made the shale gas revolution possible. Fracking waste, called flowback, contains brine, heavy metals, and unknown chemical constituents that are both introduced into well bores by operators to stimulate production and regurgitated with methane flowing from ancient reserves. Because flowback and other drilling waste is exempt from hazardous waste laws, it’s routinely handled through conventional disposal methods, where it ends up in rivers via treatment plants, dumped in landfills, buried in pits, or injected underground. The industry claims to be treating and recycling an undetermined amount of the fluids, and although that sounds good, it’s hard to know exactly what it means because recycling is voluntary and self-defined by the industry.
Reports about radioactive production waste from the Marcellus Shale – a primary pay-zone underlying much of the northeast -- have been circulating for years, but in the absence of public oversight and testing protocols, they are hard to gauge. A report by the USGS in 2011 found that high radium levels correspond with saltiness and total dissolved solids (TDS), all of which are characteristic properties of waste from Devonian shales, including the Marcellus and Utica formations underlying parts of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland. TDS is a measure of concentration of salts and other impurities dissolved in water. They are not visible to the naked eye, and they are flags for water problems apart from radioactivity.
With the onset of the Pennsylvania shale gas boom from 2008 through 2010, TDS levels spiked in major Pennsylvania watersheds, corresponding with the disposal of drilling waste to municipal wastewater plants unequipped to treat it. After TDS in the Monongahela River hit crises levels, the Pennsylvania DEP drafted new rules, under Chapter 95 of Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Laws, to discourage the disposal of drilling waste at treatment plants by setting TDS ceilings for incoming shipments. But many plants ended up grandfathered into the old standard, and the industry found other ways around the new rule, and the problem persisted. After repeated calls for the industry to voluntarily stop taking drilling waste to municipal plants, TDS levels have recently dropped in the Mon River. But they remain high in the Alleghany. Meanwhile, standards the Corbett administration is moving to relax standards. The Pennsylvania DEP is proposing to drop Chapter 93 Water Quality Standards for the discharge of molybdenum, sulfates, chlorides, and 1-4 dioxane, in response to industry complaints that restricting the discharge of these pollutants would hurt business.
In response to concerns over radioactivity, the DEP has tested water downstream of some wastewater treatment plants, and found levels to be at or below background. Update Feb. 6: A reader has pointed out that the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority also tracks levels of radiation in rivers, and has not found excessive readings at intakes to its treatment plant on the Allegheny River near Aspinwall.
Naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) comes from many elements buried in the earth. People who live in homes with basements in the northeast are familiar with radon, which sometimes presents an exposure risk requiring mitigation systems to divert gas emitted from radioactive bedrock under the foundations. A critical factor in determining risks from radioactive fracking waste is its half-life, which measures its potency over time. There are other variables, and they tend to vary from site to site, making it difficult to uniformly characterize risks. But there is a common factor. According to the USGS report, co-authored by Mark Engle:
Produced water salinities from reservoirs in rocks of Cambrian-Devonion age in the Appalachian Basin commonly exceed 100,000 mg/L, and far exceed the salinities of many other oil- and gas-producing regions in the United States, including basins in California, the Great Plains, and Colorado Plateau. In many basins, radium activity is correlated with salinity, and particularly among samples from lithologically homogeneous reservoirs, salinity may be used as an indicator of radium activity.
In other words, where there is TDS (specifically salts), there is greater potential for radium, and Marcellus waste is highly saline.
The Pennsylvania DEP responded to these concerns last week, by announcing a plan to sample and analyze the naturally occurring radioactivity levels in flowback waters, treatment solids and drill cuttings, as well as associated matters such as the transportation, storage and disposal of drilling wastes “at dozens of sites.” Details and timing of the plan were not yet public as they are pending peer review.
Why this and why now? The study was announced after reports that fracking waste trucked to conventional landfills periodically began tripping radiation alarms.
To their credit, DEP officials are trying to stay on top of the issues. The plan would go well beyond a few data points down stream from water treatment disposal sites and include points in the industry’s poorly defined waste delivery system. Yet, the wording from one DEP overview the plan represents a kind of agency-speak that appears to try very hard to tell us a lot without telling us anything.
“Current industry practices are such that data do not indicate the public or workers face any health risk from exposure to radiation ... The data will assist in
determining the need with respect to any issues as they exist during extraction,
transportation, treatment and disposal.”
Whether or not this explanation intends to obfuscate, it’s guaranteed to raise suspicion among skeptics, especially phrases like “Current industry practices are such that data do not indicate...”
Third party reports instill little confidence:
“At present, there is no concerted effort that our Radiation Protection Program is aware of concerns measuring radium concentrations or activities in brine,” DEP spokesman John Poister was quoted in TheTimesOnLine last week . “We did some surveys years ago, but nothing’s been done that routinely measures radium production during fracking operations.”
Kevin Sunday, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania DEP, has not responded to my own calls and emails this week seeking clarification.
Concerns over hot fracking waste are not new, and they are not limited to Pennsylvania. While reporting for Gannett, I uncovered a 2008 memo from the New York State Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Conservation warning of the dangers of radio-active flowback. The memo, unreleased to the public, referenced an analysis of wastewater samples by state health officials found levels of radium-226, and related alpha and beta radiation up to 10,000 times higher than drinking water standards. Based on that finding, the Health Department urged the DEC to design a testing protocol to ensure hot drilling waste is handled and disposed of properly. "The issues raised are not trivial but are also not insurmountable," the memo concluded. "Many can be addressed using common engineering controls and industry best practices."
That is reassuring, to a degree. But what are “best practices,” exactly, and how effective are they if they are optional? For now, they are left to the discretion of operators who assure us that all is being handled properly, and to private waste plant operators who echo these reassurances. Last week I wrote about
Reserved Environmental Services, a Pennsylvania company that processes fracking waste, as chronicled by documentarian Kirsi Jansa. Plant operator Andy Kicinski tells viewers that the salty water contains no detectable levels of radiation, and the radiation in sludge is below the 140 micro-rems-per-hour that is the limit for sanitary landfills. So where is the waste coming from that is periodically tripping screening alarms at landfills, and who is checking?
Clarification and definitive answers have been hard to come by, partly because the HVHF industry is still new compared to other energy industries. Ultimately, it must be tried in the field like other emerging technologies– where kinks are naturally ironed out -- for its impacts to be fully understood. It’s success or failure hopefully will not simply be a function of conventional economics, but tied to measures put in place to protect people from dangers – not just the sensational kinds of dangers like blow-outs – but chronic and cumulative dangers of waste disposal that are often easy to brush aside or shift from place to place in the short term rush to get energy on line. As long as there are no mechanisms in place to prevent the industry from passing the cost associated with these risks onto the public, it is bound to happen at least in some instances.
Federal and state policy makers are still trying to assess these risks without appearing to be a killjoy about the fledgling industry’s promises of cheap abundant energy. During his election bid, President Obama characterized shale gas development as “a priority” and a key to energy independence. Meanwhile, in the absence of any overarching federal policy (unlike the nuclear industry) managing shale gas development and the problem of waste disposal has been left to the states, and the states are responding or not responding each in their own fashion. That sometimes includes (in the case of Pennsylvania) sending waste to other states (such as Ohio).
In coming weeks, New York State is expected to unveil an environmental review – four and a half years in the making – that should answer questions about how well the regulators have prepared to oversee the fracking waste stream (and other questions). It’s called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS). Previous drafts have fallen well short of offering any kind of comprehensive plan to manage issues on the Devonian-sized scale of shale gas production in the northeast. In the absence of federal waste handling laws, and in the absence of funding for state regulatory staff to match increases in drilling beyond any historical measure, we can hope that the final version of the SGEIS will more comprehensively address what’s in the flowback, where it goes, and who makes sure it gets there. It would be good if the agency positioned itself to head off problems rather than chasing them from behind.