Western State Regulators Struggling to Keep up with Radioactive Fracking and Drilling Waste: New Report

The question of how to handle the toxic waste from fracking and other oil and gas activities is one of the most intractable issues confronting environmental regulators. Not only because of the sheer volume of waste generated nationwide, but also because some of the radioactive materials involved have a half-life of over 1,500 years, making the consequences of decision-making today especially long-lasting.

Every year, the oil and gas industry generates roughly 21 billion barrels of wastewater and millions of tons of solid waste, much of it carrying a mix of naturally occurring radioactive materials, and some of it bearing so much radioactive material that it is not safe to drink or even, on far more rare occasions, to simply have it near you.

As Oil Prices Collapse, North Dakota Considers Weakening Standards on Radioactive Drilling Waste

As the collapse of oil prices threatens North Dakota's shale drilling rush, state regulators are considering a move they say could save the oil industry millions of dollars: weakening the state's laws on disposing of radioactive waste.

The move has been the subject of an intensive lobbying effort by drillers, who produce up to 75 tons per day of waste currently considered too hazardous to dispose of in the state.

For every truckload of that waste, drillers could save at least $10,000 in hauling costs, they argue. State regulators calculate that by raising the radioactive waste threshold ten-fold, the industry would shave off roughly $120 million in costs per year.

But many who live in the area say they fear the long-term consequences of loosened disposal rules combined with the state's poor track record on preventing illegal dumping.

“We don't want to have when this oil and coal is gone, to be nothing left here, a wasteland, and I'm afraid that's what might happen,” farmer Gene Wirtz of Underwood, ND told KNX News, a local TV station. “Any amount of radiation beyond what you're already getting is not a good thing.”

Environmental groups have also objected that the rule change would put private companies' profits before public health.

“The only reason we're doing this today is to cut the oil industry's costs,” Darrell Dorgan, spokesman for the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, which opposes the move, told Reuters.

Company Presses Forward on Plans to Ship Fracking Wastewater via Barge in Ohio River, Drawing Objections from Locals

A major dispute is brewing over transporting wastewater from shale gas wells by barge in the Ohio River, the source of drinking water for millions of Americans.

On January 26, GreenHunter Water announced that it had been granted approval by the U.S. Coast Guard to haul tens of thousands of barrels from its shipping terminal and 70,000-barrel wastewater storage facility on the Ohio River in New Matamoras, Ohio.

“The U.S. Coast Guard approval is a significant 'win' for both GreenHunter Resources and our valued clients,” Kirk Trosclair, Chief Operating Officer at GreenHunter Resources, Inc., said in a statement announcing the Coast Guard's approval. “Our ability to transport disposal volumes via barge will significantly reduce our costs, improve our margins and allow us to pass along savings to our clients.”

Outraged environmental advocates immediately objected to the news.

Despite the thousands of comments from residents along the Ohio River opposing the risk of allowing toxic, radioactive fracking waste to be barged along the Ohio River, the Coast Guard quietly approved the plan at the end of 2014,” said Food & Water Watch Ohio Organizer Alison Auciello.

The Coast Guard is risking man-made earthquakes, drinking water contamination, leaks and spills. This approval compromises not only the health and safety of the millions who get their drinking water from the Ohio River but will increase the amount of toxic fracking waste that will be injected underground in Southeast Ohio.”

But the company's announcement was in fact made before the Coast Guard completed its review of the hazards of hauling shale gas wastewater via the nation's waterways – a process so controversial given the difficulty of controlling mid-river spills and the unique challenges of handling the radioactivity in Marcellus shale brine that proposed Coast Guard rules have drawn almost 70,000 public comments.

GreenHunter's move drew a sharp rebuke from Coast Guard officials. 

Pennsylvania Plant Agrees to Stop Dumping Partially-Treated Fracking Wastewater in River After Lengthy Lawsuit

A Pennsylvania wastewater treatment plant alleged to have dumped toxic and radioactive materials into the Allegheny River has agreed to construct a new treatment facility, under a settlement announced Thursday with an environmental organization that had filed suit against the plant.

Back in 2011, Pennsylvania made national headlines because the state's treatment plants – including municipal sewage plants and industrial wastewater treatment plants like Waste Treatment Corporation – were accepting drilling and fracking wastewater laden with pollutants that they could not remove.

In July 2013, Clean Water Action alleged in a lawsuit that Waste Treatment Corp. of Warren, PA violated the federal Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, along with Pennsylvania's Clean Streams Law by continuing to discharge partially treated wastewater, carrying corrosive salts, heavy metals and radioactive materials into the river, which serves as the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people, including much of the city of Pittsburgh. 

Under the terms of the settlement, within 8 months, Waste Treatment Corporation must install advanced treatment technology that will remove 99% of the contaminants in gas drilling wastewater.

Until those treatment methods are in place, Waste Treatment Corporation agreed to stop accepting wastewater from Marcellus shale wells, notorious for its high levels of radioactivity, and to cut the amount of wastewater it can accept from conventional gas wells by over a third.

“The settlement represents the first time an existing industrial treatment plant discharging gas drilling wastewater in Pennsylvania agreed to install effective treatment technology to protect local rivers,” Clean Water Action wrote in a press release.

Exclusive: Leaked EPA Draft Fracking Wastewater Guidance Suggests Closer Scrutiny for Treatment Plants

One of the most intractable problems related to fracking is that each well drilled creates millions of gallons of radioactive and toxic wastewater.

For the past several years, the Environmental Protection Agency has faced enormous public pressure to ensure this dangerous waste stops ending up dumped in rivers or causing contamination in other ways.

But the drilling boom has proceeded at such an accelerated pace in the United States that regulators have struggled to keep up, to control or even track where the oil and gas industry is disposing of this radioactive waste. As a consequence, hundreds of millions of gallons of partially treated waste have ended up in the rivers from which millions of Americans get their drinking water. 

An internal draft EPA document leaked to DeSmog gives a small window into how, after a full decade since the start of the drilling boom, the agency is responding.

The document, dated March 7, 2014, is titled “National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permitting and Pretreatment for Shale Gas Extraction Wastewaters: Frequently Asked Questions.”

It's revealing for what it shows about how EPA staff are taking the hazards of fracking wastewater more seriously — and also how little things have changed.

“In general, the EPA memo does a good job of making clear that fracking wastewater discharges are covered under the Clean Water Act, and that proper discharge permitting is required, including setting limits to protect water quality standards and to comply with technology based standards in the Clean Water Act,” explained Clean Water Action attorney Myron Arnowitt, who was asked by DeSmog to review the document. “It is mostly an increased level of detail for regional EPA staff regarding permitting issues under the Clean Water Act, compared to the pervious memo in 2011.”

The document, intended as a guide for local regulators on how the Clean Water Act should be interpreted and applied, is impressive in many ways.

After Over a Decade of Fracking, Oversight of Industry's Radioactive Waste Still Lacking

It has been roughly twelve years since fracking launched the great shale rush in the U.S. and the biggest problem with the technology — how to safely dispose of the enormous quantities of toxic waste generated — remains unsolved.

In particular, regulators have struggled to fully understand or police the hazards posed by radioactivity found in fracking waste.

The most common form of radioactivity in shale waste comes from radium-226, which happens also to be an isotope that takes the longest to decay. To be exact, radium-226’s half-life of roughly 1,600 years means that well over a millennium and a half from now, more than half of the radium that fracking brings to the surface today will still be emitting dangerous radioactive particles.

Concern about the waste has taken on renewed urgency in light of a detailed report published in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), a peer-reviewed scientific journal which is backed by the National Institutes of Health. The study concluded that worrisome and extensive gaps in federal and state oversight of this radioactivity problem still persist.

At the federal level, radioactive oil and gas waste is exempt from nearly all the regulatory processes the general public might expect would govern it,” the researchers wrote. “State laws are a patchwork.’”

This is not an entirely new finding. Several years ago, a New York Times investigative piece highlighted how the oil and gas industry routinely dumped radium-laced waste water into rivers. State regulators in Pennsylvania and the oil and gas industry adamantly denied there was a problem.

So what's changed? The recent academic study concludes that even several years later, worrisome oversight lapses remain. As such, the researchers wrote, there is continuing reason for concern.

We are troubled by people drinking water that [could potentially have] radium-226 in it,” David Brown, a public health toxicologist with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, told the researchers (insert in original). “When somebody calls us and says ‘is it safe to drink our water,’ the answer is ‘I don’t know.’”

Research Shows Some Test Methods Miss 99 Percent of Radium in Fracking Waste

Every year, fracking generates hundreds of billions of gallons of wastewater laced with corrosive salts, radioactive materials and many other chemicals. Because some of that wastewater winds up in rivers after it’s treated to remove dangerous contaminants, regulators across the U.S. have begun to develop testing regimens to gauge how badly fracking wastewater is polluted and how effective treatment plants are at removing contamination.

A newly published scientific study, however, shows that testing methods sometimes used and recommended by state regulators in the Marcellus region can dramatically underestimate the amount of radioactive radium in fracking wastewater.

These test methods can understate radium levels by as much as 99 percent, according to a scientific paper published earlier this month in Environmental Science and Technology Letters. The tests, both recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency for testing radium levels in drinking water, can be thrown off by the mix of other contaminants in salty, chemical-laden fracking brine, researchers found.

Not all the radium tests from the Marcellus region dramatically understate radioactivity. Many researchers, both public and private, have used a method, called gamma spectroscopy, that has proved far more reliable than the EPA drinking water method. But the results of the research serve as a warning to regulators in states across the U.S., as they make decisions about how to monitor radioactivity in fracking waste.

People have to know that this EPA method is not updated” for use with fracking wastewater or other highly saline solutions, said Avner Vengosh, a geochemist at Duke University.

The team of scientists from the University of Iowa tested “flowback water,” the water that flows out from a shale well after fracking, using several different test methods. The EPA drinking water method detected less than one percent of radium-226, the most common radioactive isotope in Marcellus wastewater.

Coast Guard Proposal to Allow Barges to Haul Fracking Wastewater Draws Fire From Environmentalists

The U.S. Coast Guard released plans that would allow wastewater from shale gas to be shipped via barge in the nation’s rivers and waterways on October 30 — and those rules have kicked up a storm of controversy. The proposal is drawing fire from locals and environmentalists along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers who say the Coast Guard failed to examine the environmental impacts of a spill and is only giving the public 30 days to comment on the plan.

Three million people get their water from the Ohio River, and further downstream, millions more rely on drinking water from the Mississippi. If the Coast Guard's proposed policy is approved, barges carrying 10,000 barrels of fracking wastewater would float downstream from northern Appalachia to Ohio, Texas and Louisiana.

Environmentalists say a spill could be disastrous, because the wastewater would contaminate drinking water and the complicated brew of contaminants in fracking waste, which include corrosive salts and radioactive materials, would be nearly impossible to clean up.

The billions of gallons of wastewater from fracking represent one of the biggest bottlenecks for the shale gas industry.

States atop the Marcellus shale are brimming with the stuff. Traditionally, oil and gas wastewater is disposed by pumping it underground using wastewater disposal wells, but the underground geology of northeastern states like Pennsylvania makes this far more difficult than in states like Texas, and Ohio has suffered a spate of earthquakes that federal researchers concluded were linked to these wastewater wells. The volumes of water used by drillers for the current shale gas boom are unprecedented.

Another Pennsylvania Wastewater Treatment Plant Accused of Illegally Disposing Radioactive Fracking Waste

A Pennsylvania industrial wastewater treatment plant has been illegally accepting oil and gas wastewater and polluting the Allegheny river with radioactive waste and other pollutants, according to an environmental group which announced today that it is suing the plant.
“Waste Treatment Corporation has been illegally discharging oil and gas wastewater since at least 2003, and continues to discharge such wastewater without authorization under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Streams Law,” the notice of intent to sue delivered by Clean Water Action reads.
Many pollutants associated with oil and gas drilling – including chlorides, bromides, strontium and magnesium – were discovered immediately downstream of the plant’s discharge pipe in Warren, PA, state regulators discovered in January of this year. Upstream of the plant, those same contaminants were found at levels 1 percent or less than those downstream, or were not present at all.
State officials also discovered that the sediments immediately downstream from the plant were tainted with high levels of radium-226, radium-228 and uranium. Those particular radioactive elements are known to be found at especially levels in wastewater from Marcellus shale gas drilling and fracking, and state regulators have warned that the radioactive materials would tend to accumulate in river sediment downstream from plants accepting Marcellus waste.
“To us, that says that they are discharging Marcellus Shale wastewater, although no one admits to sending it to them,” said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania State Director for Clean Water Action.

Radioactive Waste From the Marcellus Shale Continues to Draw Concern

Amid all the pushback to fracking, most of the attention has focused on what drillers put into the ground. The amount of water used. The chemicals that make up energy companies' secret mix. Whether these dangerous chemicals will contaminate our drinking water. But one of the biggest problems of fracking, indeed, the Achilles heel of this innovative drilling technique that is giving fossil fuels a second lease on life is the waste that comes out of the ground.

How will we handle the massive amounts of toxic waste that each well produces when fracking is used?  Will we dump the millions of gallons of wastewater produced from each well into rivers, pass it through sewage treatment plants, allow it to evaporate in open-faced pits, inject it into the ground at special disposal sites?

One of the reasons these questions are so urgent is that this wastewater is often radioactive. When it was revealed in February, 2011 that Pennsylvania was not only sending millions of gallons of this waste, sometimes with radium levels 3,000 times the safe level, through sewage treatment plants incapable of correct for radioactivity which then discharged into rivers, state officials panicked and denied there was cause for concern.


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