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.