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.


  1. There is currently no satisfactory answer to the question of what to do with the waste produced by shale gas extraction. This problem alone should be enough to stop shale gas extraction. This is 2013, not 1913--we cannot claim ignorance of the dangers of polluting the environment with radioactive substances, heavy metals, toxic chemicals, etc.

    Maybe one of the reasons our health care costs are sky-high is that industry is allowed to get away with atrocities like dumping radioactive waste into rivers. Maybe it's time for it to stop.

  2. Thanks Tom. Here is a story I've uncovered. Still trying to get some mainstream press coverage: Apparently the industry is using Depleted Uranium Munitions in Fracking Perf Guns. There are nearly 200 patents on this.

    I sometimes have to fiddle with the search terms (because Google seems to change things) but this query presently produces 197 patents:

    Why is this a problem? Because aerosolized DU in Iraq has caused Birth Defects which are "worse than Hiroshima". Since wells are almost always either vented or flared after completion, this means that DU dust from the perf may likely come back up. Since this is NOT on anyone's radar, and has not been reported in the mainstream press, this means the health impacts of this certainly have not been studied.

    So let's assume that each frack requires 5 lbs of DU in the shaped charge. This means that in Bradford County, where they have drilled 1,142 wells, this means that potentially 5lbs x 1,142 = nearly 3 tons of DU could have been introduced into the environment. This is for JUST ONE COUNTY!

    DU Fracking Danger Graphic

    More info:

  3. Tom, as a scientist, I agree with you that "It will likely take years if not decades for answers that carry the weight of science...".

    Governor Cuomo says that he'll decide on fracking based on the science. So what shall we do in New York? Wait for the science to come out of years worth of studies in Pennsylvania while fracking continues there?

    As a human being, I feel sorry for the people in Pennsylvania who are being subjected to what amount to radioactivity experiments being carried out in their waterways by the oil & gas industry. Radium-226 can be taken up in the fish that people eat and in water that people drink. Ingestion of radium-226 can cause cancer, which, like that caused by cigarette smoking, can take years of chronic exposure to develop. If and when fracking-related cancers do appear, the industry will have been long gone.

    The oil & gas industry's lax attitude about radioactivity is reprehensible. They and the state agencies know full well that radioactive elements are in the Marcellus shale and are extracted into the wastewater from drilling and fracking. Radioactive elements are also in the solid waste that's shipped to NY landfills and may end up in our waterways. State government agencies need to get their heads out of the sand about radioactivity and legislators need to be put on notice.

    Based on the NY State DEC's reported levels of radioactivity in the Marcellus shale wastewater (so-called 'brine'), the EPA advised the DEC in 2009 that "A program must be implemented to properly manage the elevated radionuclide concentrations in the brine to protect the worker health, public health and the environment.”

    Unfortunately, the oil & gas industry is exempt from EPA rules that protect our water, air and soil as well as regulate hazardous and radioactive waste. Loopholes to bypass the rules were fought for, and won, by oil & gas industry lobbyists.

    People interested in taking action against the fracking loopholes can easily send an email message to their U.S. Senators and Representative now via the National Resources Defense Council website:

  4. Another very serious problem found in the same study was high levels of bromide, which can react with chlorine to produce toxic substances.


    P.S. As always, I'm worried not just about what is ending up at treatment plants, but also about the very real possibility of flowback being illegally dumped.

  5. What is sad is that a university has to do this type of investigation. That's what environmental agencies and environmental consultants like URS, CH2M-Hill and E&E are for. Or were for until this fracking thing started.

    Most of us have a Superfund site in our states. New York has its share. As you New Yorkers know, Love Canal near Niagara spurred the entire Comprehensive Environmental Response and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980. Back before say 1970 one could excuse this type of waste management operation.

    A problem with blowback water, drill cuttings, drilling mud and any other waste that is regulated or not and ends up elsewhere (away from the drilling site) could fall under CERCLA or the State's equivalent. There's not much money in those coffers and if there were it would get drained in legal battles.

    The special sauce of a risk assessment is to cut off the pathways of a chemical of concern traveling from the point of release to the receptor (humans). Or make the pathway so serpentyne that the risk seems less. Another ingredient is to remove the receptor. For instance, a health risk can be reduced by simply moving people and whole towns. Another term for this is risk based closure. The problem is still there, but the risk is reduced.

    1. I think it's becoming very clear that the combination of regulatory capture and lack of funding has severely limited the positive role that environmental agencies can play in the fracking issue (and probably many other issues as well). That is why, at this point, independent research like this study is so important. It's also why it's important for people at the grassroots level--the people who will suffer if there is radium in their water, etc.--need to speak out.

    2. Mary, sorry to be using Tom's blog as the MJB thoughts collector. I realize you got this fracking thing covered. You do bring up excellent points in your comments. Take anything I say as free-form stream of consciousness blathering that could be worthless.

      Independent research can only fan the flames of the blogosphere like Rachel Carson's book did in print in 1962. That is a good thing. But, independent research has no legal merit or authority as qualified. Governments will have to do another investigation with its own tax dollars for forward motion.

      Even with a plethora of independent studies and siloed concerned citizens sitting above shale plays, there has been no reported potential/perceived/real environmental impacts so far that has slowed down natural gas development. Much. New York is safe for now from drilling. It's also not much of a gas play. Unless LNG comes online. Then probably Bloomberg will come to your house with a big fat check.

      New York at this point seems to have become the Marcellus/Utica drilling and operations waste treatment, storage and disposal (TSD) facility. I believe Love Canal's groundwater treatment unit is an option, no?

      Radionuclides in waste or the environment may fall under several regulatory agencies and could become a labyrinth of enforcement, i.e. state v. fed - mining v. O&G - EPA v. DOE v. DOT - RCRA v. CERCLA v. TSCA, etc. The maze just got plugged with a dead rat named Fed Shutdown.

      With the fed shut there are not many agents available to address all shale plays individual's concern. And if they come back to work, I'm not sure they'd be able to do anything. As history has indicated in WY, AR, TX. The Tea Party is trying to defund US EPA and/or allow state's rights on environmental issues.

      The US EPA spends about 60 percent of its budget on grants to publicly owned and public/private partnerships for water supply and wastewater treatment facilities. This typically is money for new builds and major modification projects. So capital (big $$$) for any necessary modification to water treatments plants has to come from somewhere. Who's going to want to invest in or bond those now?

      So I guess my point to all this blathering is that environmental protection and remediation costs money and lots of it. And time. And legal fees. Governments are broke. And this fracking thing is a cluster $%@*

  6. wake up PA and smell the radioactive roses!!

  7. In the revised draft of the SGEIS, Appendix 21 lists over 130 municipal waste treatment plants (POTW or Publically Owned Treatment Works) with pretreatment programs approved to accept industrial wastes.

    Despite strong criticism of the draft SGEIS, this remains.

    And there is a report that DEC is considering the repurposing of a brine treatment plant in Leicester, Livingston Co. NY for drilling waste.

    1. Saw report in Genessee Sun about Leicester treatment plant. Following up and looking for on/record confirmation -- a hard thing to get w/ DEC these days.

    2. I believe pretreatment for New York POTWs means that they will approve waste that has been "pre-treated" to some level that won't harm the existing water treatment process. It doesn't mean they can treat industrial waste per se. But an industry with its own treatment process and permit may discharge into its sewer system upon treatment.

      For almost every municipal wastewater treatment plant (the feds essentially permit all POTWs) they are set up for oil/water skimming, filtration, bio treatment (e.g. activated sludge), clarification, polishing (i.e. UV/ozone or chlorine). The major concern with all POTWs I've dealt with in the past are these: volatile organic chemicals (like benzene and chlorinated volatile organic) that could harm the biomass, "free product" or non water liquids that could cause an explosive environment in the sewers and manholes, solids including total suspended and dissolved that can mess the the whole system.

      Many POTWs use the pre-treatment policy to accept treated groundwater from remediation sites. The treatment standards are very high due to fears of anything different than turds and a little oil and grease may impact the process. So for the typical groundwater treatment site at a gasoline station or industrial facility is required to treat the water almost as clean as what is expected of a discharge to a body of water under an NPDES permit. Going to a POTW sewer with treated groundwater is usually the only option for industrial or urban areas.

      So I guess my point is that the POTW on the list in Appendix 21 (which I just gave a looksy) doesn't mean they'll accepted frack waste water as is or necessarily with treatment without permit. It means the POTWs on the list do allow for pre-treated water streams other than residential and commercial units tied into the sewer.

      Premer on the pretreatment policy

      On New York specifically

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