Radioactive

As Researchers Tie Fracking and Radon, Pennsylvania Moves to Keep Drilling Radioactivity Data Under Wraps

Last week, research into the connection between fracking and radon, an odorless, colorless, radioactive gas, drew international attention, making headlines in English, German and Italian.

The study, published in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that buildings in Pennsylvania counties where fracking is most common had significantly higher radon readings than the levels found in counties with little shale gas drilling — a difference that emerged around 2004, when the shale rush arrived.

The potential link between fracking and radon in people's homes was surprising, the researchers, based at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said.

“We found things that actually didn’t give us the reassurance that we thought it would when we started it,” Brian S. Schwartz, MD, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Johns Hopkins told the Baltimore Sun.

In a little-noticed move just one day after the Johns Hopkins report was released, a Pennsylvania court allowed the state's environmental regulators to keep the public from reviewing data from radioactivity testing at oil and gas drilling sites.

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.

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.

Pennsylvania Environmental Regulators Flunk State's Own Shale Gas Audit

In January 2013, Pennsylvania's auditor general announced that he would conduct an investigation into whether state regulators were effectively overseeing the impacts from the shale gas drilling rush.

A year and a half later, the results are in: the state's environmental regulators are failing badly in at least eight major areas, at times declining to cite drillers who broke the law. In a damning 158-page report, the state's auditor general highlighted the agency's wide-ranging failures. The report detailed the Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) use of a legal “loop hole” to avoid inspecting wells and described the agnecy's failure to fulfill its duty to track the industry's toxic waste. The report also faulted the agency for a reliance on voluntary measures in policing the industry.

The federal government has largely taken a hands-off approach to policing the drilling boom. What federal rules do exist have various broad exemptions exemptions for the oil and gas industry. Pennsylvania, which features a large swath of the Marcellus shale, is widely viewed as ground zero for the current fracking boom. In the unusually candid report released this week, state auditors have concluded that the state is overwhelmed by the industry and is providing insufficient oversight.

“It is DEP’s responsibility to protect the environment from these environmental risks and to ensure that laws and regulations which govern potential impacts to water quality are enforced,” Pennsylvania's auditors wrote. “Unfortunately, DEP was unprepared to meet these challenges because the rapid expansion of shale gas development has strained DEP, and the agency has failed to keep up with the workload demands placed upon it.”

Auditors described state environmental regulators as woefully outgunned and unprepared for the sudden arrival of the shale gas drilling frenzy.

Loopholes Enable Industry to Evade Rules on Dumping Radioactive Fracking Waste

As the drilling rush proceeds at a fast pace in Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale, nearby states have confronted a steady flow of toxic waste produced by the industry. One of Pennsylvania's most active drilling companies, Range Resources, attempted on Tuesday to quietly ship tons of radioactive sludge, rejected by a local landfill, to one in nearby West Virginia where radioactivity rules are still pending. It was only stopped when local media reports brought the attempted dumping to light.

“We are still seeking information about what happened at the Pennsylvania landfill two months ago when the waste was rejected, and about the radiation test results the company received from the lab,” Kelly Gillenwater, a West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which had tracked the waste after it was rejected by a Chartiers, PA landfill because it was too radioactive. “For now this is still under investigation.”

It's one of a series of incidents involving the disposal of fracking's radioactive waste. Collectively these incidents illustrate how a loophole for the oil and gas industry in federal hazardous waste laws has left state regulators struggling to prevent the industry from disposing its radioactive waste in dangerous 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.

Toxic Coal Ash Disposal Proves Costly and Hazardous, Duke Energy's Sutton Lake Contamination Questioned

A new report out from Wake Forest University concludes that coal ash waste from Duke Energy’s Sutton coal plant in Wilmington, NC is elevating levels of selenium pollution in nearby Sutton Lake. The lake, prized by fishermen for its largemouth bass population, has been contaminated, according to a study released today by Prof. Dennis Lemly, Research Associate Professor of Biology at Wake Forest, with high levels of selenium. Selenium has been linked to deformities in fish – including two-headed trout – and can cause a condition known as selenosis if people consume high enough doses in their food or drinking water.

Several conservation groups, including the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center, which joined the University in announcing the findings, filed suit against Duke Energy Progress, Inc. this summer, arguing that pollution from the Sutton plant's coal ash is “killing a regional fishing lake and is threatening a community’s drinking water.”

The new report, which found that the coal ash pollution kills over 900,000 fish and deforms thousands more in Sutton Lake each year, is likely to bolster the plaintiffs' case in that suit.

The research also highlights one of the most fundamental problems with American energy policy: policy-makers and the public have been unwilling to recognize the true costs of the fuels we use to make electricity.

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.

Experts Air Serious Concerns Before New York Fracking Decision

James Thilman/Gothamist

Two recent court decisions  in New York state upheld the right of towns to use zoning laws to limit or even ban fracking within their borders. Other states and cities such as DallasMaryland, and North Carolina, are still trying to figure out whether, and if so how, to proceed with new drilling.

But the big decision that concerned citizens are watching is the one to be made by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo about his state’s moratorium. New York received more than 40,000 public comments on fracking and is plowing through them now.

The state has yet to publish those documents on the web, but DeSmogBlog has obtained many of them. Here is our initial shortlist of comments that offer the most important warnings and useful insights.

A Hidden Threat?

One of the most overlooked but potentially dangerous public health issues relating to unconventional gas drilling is radon. This odorless and radioactive gas comes up from the wells mixed with the gas that gets piped to consumers. Highly carcinogenic, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, just behind cigarette smoking, according to the EPA.

In his comments, Dr. Marvin Resnikoff, director of Radioactive Waste Management Associates, concludes that radon levels in the gas that will come from Marcellus and likely be delivered to nearly 12 million New York residents will be far higher than current levels. As a result, “the potential number of fatal lung cancer deaths due to radon in natural gas from the Marcellus shale range from 1,182 to 30,448” he writes.

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