In 2009, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation analyzed 13 samples of fracking wastewater from gas drilling sites in the Marcellus Shale and found levels of radium, a radioactive element, as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink.
While New York is currently under a drilling moratorium, Pennsylvania has had a gas drilling boom over the last few years and there is much that can be learned from data on radioactivity in fracking wastewater from Marcellus Shale drilling in that state.
The NY Times reviewed 30,000 pages of records on drilling in more than 200 Pennsylvania gas wells over the last 3 years. The records were obtained from federal, state and industry sources.
The review revealed that levels of radium, uranium or other radioactive elements in 116 gas wells were 100 times higher than federal drinking water standards, and in 15 wells, 1000 times higher (see Map). The findings confirm and extend those made from radioactivity data from the limited testing done in New York.
Pennsylvania Map. Brown circles reflect radioactivity levels above the federal standard in fracking wastewater at gas wells, and larger circles indicate higher radioactivity (Gross Alpha). Blue lines are major rivers.
Sewage treatment plants in three states, including New York, accepted Pennsylvania fracking wastewater, despite the fact that the plants were not equipped to monitor and remove radioactivity. As a result, treated water of questionable quality was discharged into waterways and taken up into downstream plants that provide drinking water. The downstream plants were also not equipped to monitor and remove radioactivity.
The finding that fracking wastewater contains high levels of radioactivity that may be entering the drinking water raises serious concern about the effects on public health. Where tested, much of the radioactivity is from radium, which can cause cancer when ingested by drinking water or by eating fish or farm produce that is contaminated.
In 2009, the radioactivity risks prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to advise New York that sewage treatment plants should not accept drilling waste with radium levels that are 12 or more times the federal standard for drinking water. Also, they should not discharge water with radioactivity higher than the standard.
Testing for radioactivity in drinking water is required by federal law only at drinking-water intake plants. Unfortunately, it is not done often enough to keep pace with the rapidly growing discharges of drilling wastewater. In fact, most drinking water plants in Pennsylvania had not tested for radioactivity since at least 2005, before the gas drilling boom occurred there.
Following the recent NY Times report about high levels of radium, the EPA took action to inform Pennsylvania in a letter dated March 7, 2011 indicating that it is critical to investigate the presence of radioactive elements, and to inform the public as to whether, and at what levels, they occur in their water supply. Within 30 days, EPA wants a sampling plan to be developed and initial samples collected. The EPA said that such knowledge will be the basis for imposing the controls necessary to ensure that public health and the aquatic environment are protected.
The PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has recently stated that radium in rivers is negligible, although critics indicate that the DEP can’t guarantee people will not be exposed to radioactive drinking water unless DEP is sampling everywhere all the time.
A fracking ban or at least a hazardous waste designation on fracking wastewater would protect our drinking water from contamination by radioactive elements and toxic chemicals released from shale, and additional toxics added to fracking fluid.
Links to Sources:
- NY Times: Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers - NY Times: Pennsylvania Map - US EPA: Letter from EPA (PDF)
- ProPublica: Is New York’s Marcellus Shale Too Hot to Handle?
- Pennsylvania DEP: Radium in rivers is negligible- Buffalo News: Faulty figure on ‘fracking’ recycling linked to National Fuel subsidiary