Friday, October 25, 2013

Will Utica, Marcellus remain non-starters in Empire State? New theory holds geology, not politics, thwarts NY fracking

Cabot Oil & Gas Map showing thickness of Marcellus shale, one measure
of it's viability. Other factors include depth, organic content,
thermal maturity, and myriad political and market factors    
A collection of factors stalled the Pennsylvania shale gas rush at the New York state border, including grass roots opposition, a market glut, the threat of local bans and --  above all -- the state’s reluctance to complete permitting guidelines without more information about health impacts. That, at least, is the familiar version of the story recounted through the popular press. But a group of activists – some uniquely qualified – are building an argument that something more profound and fundamental is at work: A lack of gas.

“Simply put, we now know that the Marcellus is likely only marginally productive in a few townships by the border - and may not be economic there until after 2020,” said Chip Northrup. “The Utica may not be here at all - or in a few pockets.”

Next week, Northrup, a former oil and gas investor from Texas, will publically make this case along with a select group of anti-fracking activists, some with industry resumes. The event is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Cornell University’s Hollister Hall Auditorium. In addition to Northup, presenters will include Lou Allstadt, a retired senior vice president for Mobil Oil, Jerry Acton, a systems analyst for Lockheed Martin, and Brian Brock, a retired geologist. The event will be moderated by Tony Ingraffea, a Cornell engineering professor specializing in fracturing mechanics that are integral to shale gas production.

The argument isn’t really about whether there is gas under New York – geologists agree that multiple gas-bearing formations, conventional and otherwise, lie beneath upstate’s countryside from the Catskills to the Allegany region. It’s a question of whether the broad mantels of Devonian shale, which hold prospects of drilling, fracking, and infrastructure development on an unprecedented scale, are economically viable under current or future market conditions.

Interest in New York’s unconventional reserves peaked in 2008, when the price of natural gas was three to four times higher than it is now. Since then, production of Marcellus wells coming on line in Pennsylvania and West Virginia has soared, contributing to a price collapse that is not forecast to change anytime soon. While this is a contributing factor, Northrup argues that the much-hyped future for shale gas as an economic engine for New York was a bust from the start. The team of presenters next week at Cornell will base this outlook both on analysis of available geological records and the status of leasing and development trends by major oil and gas companies. So far, only one major, Exxon Mobil, holds significant leases in New York – 50,000 acres in Broome and Delaware counties, near the Pennsylvania border. Moreover, Northrup said, analysis of well data filed with the DEC shows a range of major companies including Chevron, Gulf and others, tested upstate reserves prior to the “the fury” of the gas rush unfolded in 2008. “They kicked the tires and left well before the moratorium was in place,” he said.

Since the moratorium preventing high volume hydraulic fracturing began in the summer of 2008, midsize companies have faired poorly in their shale gas quest in New York. Norse Energy, a Norwegian company, was planning to tap Marcellus reserves in Oneida and Chenango counties. But officials recently announced they will close operations that remain insolvent after the company’s failure to sell pipeline rights of way and gas leases on 130,000 acres to pay debts. Chesapeake Energy, meanwhile, is letting its leases in New York expire after losing a legal battle to extend them indefinitely (through a process called force majeure) while waiting out the resolution to the state’s moratorium. Prior to that, Talisman, a Canadian company that was a big player in New York’s Trenton Black River boom, began shifting it’s operations from conventional resources in New York to Pennsylvania’s shale gas.

Interest from major oil companies is one of multiple measures of shale gas prospects, and it is not always a defining one. As Russell Gold recently reported for the Wall Street Journal, majors have not typically thrived in the natural gas business, and Shell Oil is selling off some assets in Texas after suffering from a market glut that has held prices down to below $4 per thousand cubic feet for several years. The industry moves in cycles, however, along with prices and demand, and independents play an important if not critical role in exploring resources that might otherwise go undiscovered as business cycles ebb and flow. Gold explains:

Smaller producers have tended to be more successful in shale than major oil companies, in part because they can move more quickly to lease up acreage before land prices rise and are more nimble at experimenting with different well designs to maximize output and drive down unit costs.

In short, smaller independents commonly venture where majors don’t. There is a lower barrier of entry to leasing, exploring, and experimenting in unproven areas, and rewards of discovery are greater. So are the risks.

This is a concern for Allstadt, who has led the push for a precedent-setting municipal ban (now being tested before the state’s high court) on drilling in Cooperstown. He has told me he does not generally fear the work of major oil companies, but he is wary of wildcatters – independents with limited capital who live or die in the world of speculative ventures. “They (Independents) play on the fringes,” Allstadt said. “They are the ones most likely to screw things up.” (Drillers have already left a legacy in upstate New York. Regulators estimate there are 57,000 abandoned and orphan oil and gas wells statewide, many of them left by firms that went broke or walked away from them.  Of these, the state has listed 4,722 as a priority due to health and safety risks, but lacks funding to plug them.  More on that here.)

In addition to a market evaluation, Northup said the presenters at Cornell will offer geological data that shows underwhelming results for shale gas samples collected from wells drilled in the 1990s and the early part of this century targeting conventional formations – mostly the Trenton Black River. Operators had to drill through the Utica and Marcellus to get to the Trenton Black River, which provided a small boom of its own when natural gas prices began rising several decades ago. The Marcellus is generally thought to be too thin and too close to the surface to be effectively developed in western New York, where most of the Trenton wells are drilled. But some geologists have argued that the prime drilling fairway of the Utica shale, which is providing productive wet gas and oil wells in eastern Ohio, may overlap the Trenton fields in western New York. Northup argues the opposite. “If those had shown Utica potential, all the majors would be here - and they never were,” he said. Take into account these factors, plus limitations imposed by natural barriers, topography, and regional no-drilling zones the state has imposed for ecological reasons, the much-touted drilling fairway for shale gas extending into New York’s Southern Tier “looks more like a putting green,” Northrup quipped on a recent appearance on Liz Benjamin’s Capital Tonight.

Terry Engelder is a geologist from Penn State whose career has been defined by his knowledge of Devonian shale. In a series of calculations in 2008 and 2009, he estimated that the Marcellus contained enough recoverable gas – nearly 500 trillion cubic feet -- to last decades, and his very public encouragement to investors and the media served as a catalyst to the gas rush in Pennsylvania. Now, with prices a fraction of what they were, Engelder is cautious about assessing the economic breakeven point of New York’s shale reserves, which, he said, “need careful evaluation.” In an email this week, he responded to my requests to assess the validity of claims by Northrup’s team that New York’s reserves are too small and problematic to be worthwhile.

Now it may turn out that shale gas in New York will not work for less than, say, $5.00/MMcf, BUT the the state should thoroughly evaluate this possibility and not have a bunch of born-again anti-frackers shout the industry down before sensible geologists and engineers really understand what the possibilities are.  

His dismissal with the anti-fracking movement aside, Engelder’s cautionary theme is a contrast to brimming enthusiasm he expressed along with lawyers, elected officials, landowners, and landmen that reflected a sense of giddiness over prospects of the shale gas boom in 2008. Interest in New York peaked in the summer of 2008, after a coalition of landowners near the Pennsylvania border landed a deal with XTO Energy (later bought by Exxon Mobil) to open 50,000 acres for development for $110 million plus royalties. Although that acreage remains undeveloped due to the moratorium, Engelder’s estimates were supported by production figures as the shale gas rush took shape in Pennsylvania over the next few years. By early 2009 drilling proponents in Pennsylvania and New York began looking for political leverage to encourage government support of the industry. As the economy sunk into recession, the case for jobs seemed to be the hot button. Stakeholder-funded studies purported to show economic potential that, in retrospect, stretch the limits of good sense in some cases.  An enthusiastic Broome County legislature paid University of North Texas scholars for a study that concluded Broome County was “fortunately located in the epicenter of the play” and shale gas development would produce 4,000 wells that would bring $15 billion to the economy, create 16,000 jobs, generate $792 million is salaries and $85 million in tax revenue.  The study encouraged county officials – before a single well was drilled or land leased -- to budget $5 million of expected lease payments on county-owned land near the landfill. Five years later, the county is yet to collect a dime from its shale gas assets, whatever they may be.

Engelder’s predictions remain controversial. And while early production numbers in Pennsylvania have met and in some cases exceeded them, questions about production have given way to questions about sustainability. (Will Bunch, of the Philadelphia Daily news, explores unmet expectations in Pennsylvania’s gas rush here, and Kevin Begos, of the Associated Press, looks at the concern of pension fund managers over the long-term profitability of the industry here.)

Chris Denton, an attorney who represents landowner coalitions, has seen the rise and fall of gas prices and corresponding interest in shale gas leases in New York. He pointed out that geological assessments are unique, piecemeal, and often proprietary, so it’s hard to usefully extrapolate figures from conventional wells, many which are in western New York, to the parts of the Marcellus shale thought to have the greatest potential, which are more toward the east. “I don’t really pay much attention unless it’s hard data from wells,” said Denton, who added that there is no mystery to why shale gas has not taken off in New York while it’s flourishing just across the boarder in Pennsylvania. “We’ve spoken with a lot of interested parties, and as it stands, it’s really too easy for them to go someplace else. They tell us, ‘call us after the moratorium’s been lifted.’”

For every argument against shale gas, it’s easy to find a countervailing argument. Theories about the geology in New York bring a chicken-or-egg quality to the discussion. Denton says the geology has not been proven because of the moratorium. Northup says the lack of interest – based on available geological data -- makes it politically comfortable for Governor Andrew Cuomo to extend the moratorium indefinitely.

The argument for or against the geology aside, there are new signs that Northrup has correctly pegged the political atmosphere. In an interview earlier this week in the Syracuse Post Standard, DEC Commissioner Joe Martens told reporter David Figura the health review needed to complete the state’s permitting policy is “going to take some time… We really don’t feel that there is any great urgency. People really want to be satisfied that this can be done safely and that's what [Department of Health Commissioner] Dr. Shah is trying to get to the bottom of.”

Will the geology of New York support a full-scale gas development by major energy companies or even speculative exploration by wildcatters? For now, a number of influences – including markets, political pressures, and unproven geology -- have created a feedback loop that favors the status quo.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The razing of 1101 Carter Road: The rest of the story… Land “covenant” in deed forbids “human habitation”

The Sautner home became focus of the antifracking movement
When I last visited Carter Road, a contractor for Cabot Oil & Gas was demolishing the former home of Craig and Julie Sautner, the anti-fracking activists who had relinquished their three-bedroom ranch as part of a settlement with the Texas drilling company. This was part of a larger dilemma in their hometown of Dimock, Pennsylvania, where the Sautner’s water well was polluted by nearby Cabot drilling operations, according to records from the state Department of Environmental Protection. It’s a charge that Cabot has denied publically and settled privately – with the Sautners and dozens of other plaintiffs.

The Sautner property – adorned with anti-fracking posters and inhabited by some of the most vocal and visible of fracking critics -- had become a particular symbol of the tensions that divided the community. Julie and Craig were featured in various high-profile accounts of the conflict as either victims, heroes or phonies. The aquifer that provided water to their home on 1101 Carter Road, and to 64 other homes in
EPA tecs sample water at Sautner home in 2012
the area, was the focus of a controversial EPA investigation that found pollution at levels posing safety threats in 8 percent of the wells. Instead of making recommendations, the federal agency deferred to the industry’s solution, approved by the state, which was to deliver water in bottles and tanks to affected homes and provide filtrations systems. The Sautners and some other residents found those measures ineffective, and they unsuccessfully pursued a water line from the nearby village of Montrose – a measure that would have cost Cabot more than $11 million.  (A more full account of that story here.)

As part of an eventual settlement, the Sautners sold their property to a Cabot subsidiary for $167,500. Cabot demolished the vacant house, company spokesman George Stark told me after my visit last month, because the company was planning to sell the property, and it was more marketable without the
structure. Yet that answer doesn’t square with information on a deed that has since been filed in the Susquehanna County Court House in Montrose. After demolishing the house, Cabot sold the 3.3 acre parcel to Tim and Debbie Maye – owners of an adjoining property -- for $4,000. (Perhaps the absence of the house is an asset to Cabot, which retained the mineral rights on the Sautner acreage, although it’s worth noting that the DEP has forbid the company to drill in the area until it resolves the persistent problem of methane seeping into some water supplies in nine square miles around Carter Road. It's also worth noting that the Mayes have a history with Cabot that's antithetical to the Sautner's. The Mayes, who were once critical of the company, became shale gas supporters after they settled pollution claims of their own )

The most striking aspect of the sale, however, is this: The new owners of 1101 Carter Road are bound by certain conditions set forth in the deed, in parlance that may fairly be described as epic. It forbids a “residence or dwelling for human habitation” on the land. The time frame for this and other restrictions is “forever,” to be observed by future generations as “covenants running with the land.”

The sale, first reported this week by Laura Legere for State Impact, represents a kind of denouement to a story that I have been following for years while reporting for the Press & Sun Bulletin, in writing Under the Surface, and for this blog. The Sautners were initially enthusiastic and expectant supporters of shale gas development when the landman convinced them to lease their mineral rights in 2008. Their story, and the story of more than dozens others affected by Cabot’s operations, captures a complication that belies a common industry pitch:  Everyone’s a winner with shale gas development. Landowers get royalties, others get jobs, and there is cheap abundant energy for all. Claims of water contamination are exaggerated, fabricated, or trumped up by overreaching regulators.

In reality, there are economic winners and losers, as well as substantial environmental risks and trade-offs. The risks and trade-offs are hard to quantify because the industry is exempt from reporting requirements to disclose what it puts into the ground to stimulate wells, and what comes out. Whether you find this acceptable is likely to depend on whether you trust the industry more than government, your tolerance for mineral extraction in places you care about, and your belief in the wisdom of investing heavily in a fossil based energy system to meet 21st century challenges.

We know this: In some places gas is flowing, and with it, economic bounty to a mix of parties. But we also know this, like most things in life, is a circumstantial and transitory condition. The reality of the matter is that it often takes teams of bankers, lawyers, real estate agents, insurance actuaries, and regulators to sort it all out while being mindful of split estates, law suites, lease language, liabilities, and policy that can cut both ways depending on the proficiency and determination of various stakeholders. In the end, the example on 1101 Carter Road left a new land “covenant” forbidding “human habitation” at a place once called home by the Sautners.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Western NY brine plant becomes emblem of fracking flap Town officials: negotiations between industry, DEC secret

Update Oct. 21 New York state officials will hold a forum in early November to address community concerns and questions about the status of the failed Akso salt mine and related pollution and treatment operations. Representatives from DEC and the State Attorney General’s Office will lead a discussion by technical experts at Geneseo University, Newton Lecture Building, on Nov. 6 from 6:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m., followed by a public comments and questions. DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said the forum is a result of concerns expressed by local officials about the future of brine treatment operations to protect water supplies in Livingston County.

* * *

Shortly after the Marcellus Shale gas boom began in 2009, a tanker truck delivered 3,000 gallons of fracking waste from a Pennsylvania drill site to a treatment plant in a rural community outside of Rochester, New York. The delivery – a drop in the bucket by shale gas standards  -- was an experiment. The plant was designed to treat waste leaching from an imploded salt mine in the Town of Leicester -- the product of a mandate from the New York DEC after the geological catastrophe in 1994.  The mine’s owner, AkzoNobel, ever vigilant of costs of the ongoing operation and ways to reduce or offset them, is now negotiating terms with the DEC to shut the plant down. Meanwhile, interested parties have considered the potential to repurpose the plant – which employs 15 people and is running far under capacity -- to receive fracking waste. In that regard, the 3,000-gallon test was a success, at least in the minds of those eager to see the plant remain in operation, or perhaps even dismantled and moved to Pennsylvania.

Some of these facts, which I confirmed this week through an informed source speaking on the condition of anonymity, are just coming to light at town and county meetings as residents try to piece together something they feel has a lot to do with their well-being: the status and future of a treatment plant that was originally built to protect their aquifer from the threats of brine leaking from a failed salt mine, and now being considered for decommission or possibly as a source for fracking waste.

The mine collapse that started it all was a major event that ruined water supplies and swallowed significant portions of the landscape. In a recent overview of the dilemma, Gannett’s Steve Orr aptly describes lingering associations:

People can't help but remember the sinkholes, land subsidence, a creek that disappeared underground and basements suddenly filled with explosive methane, the closed roads and ruined bridge that marked 1994 and 1995 in western Livingston County.

Orr also summarizes the conclusions of conflicting geological reports -- one by a U.S. Geologic Survey researcher and the other by a consultant in Albany -- regarding the consequences of shutting down the treatment operation after more than 15 years. Without the treatment, the salt will drain into a deep aquifer not currently used as a fresh water source. There is a debate whether the current quality of the aquifer justifies saving it from the discharge, and whether it might in fact be a necessary source of freshwater in the future.

It’s about the aquifer, but the DEC’s handling of the situation behind closed doors represents a broader political issue: the degree local governments trust the state’s ability, willingness, and sincerity in openly overseeing environmental protection in the face of industry interests. Perhaps nowhere is this issue hotter than with shale gas development.

Town of Leicester supervisor Lisa Semmel was among a small party of local officials who met with staff from the DEC and the Attorney General’s office last month. It was here she first learned of Akzo’ negotiations with the state to close the treatment plant, she said, but she could get details. The state officials asked her to keep the meeting confidential, she added, a request that she finds unacceptable. “We’re not keeping it quiet any longer because they are not giving us any answers,” she told me this week. “We’re kept in the dark, like everybody else.” Semmel is especially concerned about the implications of the undisclosed delivery of fracking waste at the plant – which she learned through a report last month in the Genessee Sun.

The production of shale gas from a single well produces millions of gallons of flowback  -- liquid waste that contains additives and naturally occurring hazardous substances including metals, solvents, chemicals, radionuclides, and various dissolved constituents. But its most obvious ingredient is brine, which can foul fresh water systems if not removed before the effluent is discharged into rivers and streams. Because drilling waste is exempt from federal hazardous waste laws, operators can run flowback through conventional treatment and desalinization plants not equipped to remove hazardous waste.

New York currently has a moratorium on shale gas production due to unknowns about its impacts on health and environment. But a lack of a stated policy on waste imports from Pennsylvania, an air of secrecy regarding the health department’s current evaluation of health risks, and general difficulty local officials are experiencing in prying loose information have encouraged town boards to challenge the state’s qualifications to oversee the industry in the best interest of the public. For these reasons, and questions over the state’s handling of the Leicester treatment plant in particular, the Avon Town board passed a resolution last month to re-impose a 12-month moratorium on natural gas exploration and extraction.

Avon Town Supervisor David Lefeber, quoted by Genessee Sun reporter Josh Williams, explained it this way:  “Since we talked about this operation [hydrofracking], we thought the State was going to issue permits, the State was going to monitor things, the State was going to make sure that our resources are protected … Businesses come and go, but our ability to produce food and have fresh water is a huge thing and somebody’s got to protect that.”

Avon’s resolution is one of more than 170 bans imposed or considered by municipalities statewide, and the validity of many of them rest on the outcome of a landmark case now before the state’s Court of Appeals testing jurisdictional limits of shale gas regulation known as Home Rule. (More on that here.) After five years, the state is yet to finalize its own policy on permitting shale gas development. Although Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration is not allowing fracking until its review is complete, it has not prohibited the importation of fracking waste from other states.

In response to my email query this week, DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said Akso and its insurance carrier, Zurich, want to discontinue operations to treat the discharges from the ruins of the salt mine in Leicester, which they characterize as “impractical and not cost-effective,” The DEC is considering a monetary settlement for the plant’s closure, but no decision has been made. Constantakes did not address whether the plant could be repurposed for fracking waste.

Robert Middaugh, a spokesman for New York State Attorney General’s Office, said Akso is planning to dismantle the plant, and he knew of no plans to process fracking waste there. The AG’s office has been in touch with county officials about the plant’s status, he added, and has asked that only matters dealing with litigation be kept private.

Those matters could be varied, numerous, and far reaching, of course, and it’s hard to reconcile this vague answer with the claim from local town officials telling reporters they are being kept in the dark, including this in the Genessee Sun from Jim Campbell, an attorney who represents the Towns of Avon, Leicester and York:

These towns are justifiably concerned that the State and the DEC are attempting to delay this information from being made available to the public … Our concern is that the ink might already be dry on a deal between the New York State Attorney General, the DEC, and Zurich. Such a deal could have profound impacts for Livingston County and should only be considered after adequate dissemination of the facts and an opportunity for public input.

“We need a public discussion of exactly what’s going on,” Livingston County Administrator Ian Coyle told me this week. He has asked DEC officials to hold a hearing on the matter in a school or auditorium. He is still waiting for a response.

While the politically explosive option of allowing the Leicester plant to process fracking fluid may be off the table (or not), it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on behind the scenes. If the state has allowed this kind of testing for one plant, what about others? The current draft of the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement – the state’s pending overview of permitting considerations for high volume hydraulic fracturing -- identifies 130 municipal waste treatment plants in appendix 21 that have equipment that makes them eligible for fracking waste permits.

Liquid waste from gas production is just one part of a much broader metric. Shale gas development also produces solid waste, including drill cuttings tinged with varying degrees of metals, solvents, and naturally occurring radio active material (NORM) from deep in the ground. Like flowback, this waste is also exempt from federal hazardous waste handling laws, and at least four New York landfills are accepting it under protocols designed for industrial waste: Hakes Landfill in Painted Post, the Chemung Landfill near Elmira, Seneca Meadows Landfill in Waterloo and the Allied/BFI Waste Systems landfill in Niagara Falls. According to figures compiled by Fractracker (which compliles industry reports filed with the state) operators in Pennsylvania imported 29,662 tons of solid waste and 6,000 gallons – a relatively small amount -- of fracking fluid to New York destinations in the first half of 2013.

There are incentives and rationale for accepting waste from shale gas operations: It has to go somewhere; it is an unpreventable byproduct of cheap energy that we all use; it is not perceived as dangerous; it is handled appropriately and sufficiently as industrial waste; and it can generate millions of dollars of revenues for municipalities and private companies as part of the larger economic incentive for shale gas development.  But given the tenacious and organized resistance that has stalled fracking in New York, it will be a hard political sell for most New York communities to knowingly allow the importation of Pennsylvania fracking waste under incomplete and seemingly discretionary state policy and it’s growing reputation for secrecy. Yet, as things stand, it remains a legally viable option, one that does not require public hearings, and one that is difficult to track.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Duke study finds radioactive hot spots in PA tributaries Levels below shale discharge 200 X above background

Radioactive waste discharged into rivers from shale gas operations in Pennsylvania exceed regulatory thresholds and pose an environmental risk, according to a study released today by Duke University.

The peer-reviewed study, published in Environmental Science and Technology, found that radium levels of sediment samples collected in Blacklick Creek downstream from a treatment plant in Western Pennsylvania were 200 times greater than samples upstream and background sediments. The levels exceed thresholds for radioactive waste disposal and pose “potential environmental risks of radium bioaccumulation in localized areas of shale gas wastewater disposal.” The samples were collected downstream from discharges from the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility, in Indiana County, which treats wastewater from oil and gas drilling.

Waste from oil and gas drilling is exempt from both federal hazardous waste handling and disposal regulations and the Safe Drining Water Act. Oversight is left up to states, including New York and Pennsylvania, which have no standards or protocol to test drilling waste for radio-active material. The Duke study is sure to heat up a debate in both states over health risks from extracting shale gas through high volume hydraulic fracturing. Researchers attempting to clarify the issues face a tall task due to a lack of public records and disclosure about chemicals used and waste produced. The Duke study is one in a small but growing field attempting to quantifying environmental hazards of shale gas development -- a key requisite for gauging health risks. It will likely take years if not decades for answers that carry the weight of science, and even those will likely be debatable without mandatory disclosure requirements for the industry.

Currently, at least five landfills in upstate New York accept drilling waste from Pennsylvania drilling operators: Hyland in Angelica, the Hakes Landfill in Painted Post, the Chemung Landfill near Elmira, Seneca Meadows Landfill in Waterloo, and the Allied/BFI Waste Systems landfill in Niagara Falls. Landfill waste includes cuttings and mud from well drilling. Although it’s different from the effluent discharged into streams, it also tends to include high levels of radium.

The Pennsylvania DEP tested water downstream of some wastewater treatment plants in late 2010, and found levels to be at or below background. Tests by the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority also showed no  excessive readings at intakes to its treatment plant on the Allegheny River near Aspinwall. But other studies, including one by the USGS, showed that radio-active levels tend to correspond with shale gas waste, and that tends to fluctuates depending on operators production and disposal schedules.

As a follow-up, the DEP announced earlier this year 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.” DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly said today that results of the study, which is underway, will likely be available early next year.

The following is from a SGR post on Feb. 2, 2013, which is relevant in light of the Duke study:

Reports about radioactive production waste from the Marcellus Shale 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. 
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 that 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.