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Ohio Utica Shale

Radiation in Pennsylvania creek results from fracking wastes

By Bob Downing Published: October 2, 2013

From Bloomberg News today:

By Jim Efstathiou Jr.

Naturally occurring radiation brought to the surface by gas drillers has been detected in a Pennsylvania creek that flows into the Allegheny River, illustrating the risks of wastewater disposal from the boom in hydraulic fracturing.

Sediment in Blacklick Creek contained radium in concentrations 200 times above normal, or background levels, according to the study, published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The radium, along with salts such as bromide, came from the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility about 45 miles (72 kilometers) east of Pittsburgh, a plant that treats wastewater from oil and gas drilling.

"The absolute levels that we found are much higher than what you allow in the U.S. for any place to dump radioactive material," Avner Vengosh, a professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University and co-author of the study, said in an interview. "The radium will be bio-accumulating. You eventually could get it in the fish."

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking has been blamed for contaminating streams and private water wells after spills from wastewater holding ponds or leaks from faulty gas wells. Today’s report exposes the risks of disposing of the surging volumes of waste from gas fracking. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is developing new standards for disposing of gas drilling waste.

Commercial Treatment

For decades Pennsylvania disposed of wastewater from oil and gas drilling at commercial treatment plants that discharged into rivers and streams. A natural-gas boom bought on by fracking in a geologic formation called the Marcellus Shale led to a 570 percent increase in the volume of drilling wastewater since 2004, according to Brian Lutz, assistant professor of biogeochemistry at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.

In fracking, millions of gallons of chemically treated water and sand are forced underground to shatter rock and free trapped gas. As much as 80 percent of the fluid returns to the surface along with radium, and salts such as sodium, calcium, magnesium, chlorine, bromide.

Water treatment "has been Pennsylvania’s go-to method for decades," Lutz said in an interview. With fracking "we were seeing these systems being overwhelmed. They were just taking too much waste leading to water quality problems."

Monitoring Needed

While earlier studies have identified radiation in drilling wastewater, today’s report is the first to examine the long-term environmental impacts of dumping it in rivers. Proper treatment can remove a substantial portion of the radioactivity in wastewater, though it does not remove many of the other salts, including bromide, Vengosh said.

"Our findings indicate that disposal of wastewater from both conventional and unconventional oil and gas operations has degraded the surface water and sediments," Nathaniel Warner, a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth College and co-author of the study, said in a statement. "This could be a long-term legacy of radioactivity."

Blacklick Creek is a tributary of the Conemaugh River, which flows into the Allegheny. In 2011, regulators found high levels of bromides in western Pennsylvania rivers, prompting some plants that supply Pittsburgh and other cities to change the way they treat drinking water.

Bromide, which is not toxic, can combine with disinfectants used at drinking water treatment plants to produce cancer- causing compounds. Radium is a naturally occurring metal that can accumulate in plants and animals and be transferred through the food chain to humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Voluntary Request

"We’re getting better at reducing the amount of wastewater produced by shale gas wells, but the total wastewater volume continues to grow rapidly," Lutz said. "There simply isn’t disposal infrastructure in place."

In 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection asked Marcellus Shale drillers to voluntarily stop taking wastewater to the Josephine plant and 14 others that had yet to meet new discharge standards.

Aquatech agreed in a May settlement with the state not to treat Marcellus Shale waste at Josephine and two of its other plants until they are upgraded to new standards. The company also agreed to spend up to $30 million to upgrade the three plants and to pay an $83,000 penalty.

The Josephine plant, which was acquired in May by Aquatech International Corp., stopped treating Marcellus Shale waste after the 2011 state advisory was issued, according to Devesh Mittal, vice president and general manager of the shale gas division at the closely held company.

"There’s a very brief period of time when unconventional was treated," Mittal, who had not seen today’s study, said in an interview. "But that kind of stopped as a result of the DEP notification that came in April of 2011."

Patrick Creighton, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, said he had not seen the report and could not comment.

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Utica and Marcellus shale web sites

Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management State agency Web site.

ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management. State drilling permits. List is updated weekly.

ODNR Division of Geological Survey.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Ohio State University Extension.

Ohio Farm Bureau.

Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a Granville-based group that represents 1,500 Ohio energy-related companies.

Ohio Oil & Gas Energy Education Program.

Energy In Depth, a trade group.

Marcellus and Utica Shale Resource Center by Ohio law firm Bricker & Eckler.

Utica Shale, a compilation of Utica shale activities.

Landman Report Card, a site that looks at companies involved in gas and oil leases.FracFocus, a compilation of chemicals used in fracking individual wells as reported voluntarily by some drillers.

Chesapeake Energy Corp,the Oklahoma-based firm is the No. 1 driller in Ohio.

Rig Count Interactive Map by Baker Hughes, an energy services company.

Shale Sheet Fracking, a Youngstown Vindicator blog.

National Geographic's The Great Shale Rush.

The Ohio Environmental Council, a statewide eco-group based in Columbus.

Buckeye Forest Council.

Earthjustice, a national eco-group.

Stop Fracking Ohio.

People's Oil and Gas Collaborative-Ohio, a grass-roots group in Northeast Ohio.

Concerned Citizens of Medina County, a grass-roots group.

No Frack Ohio, a Columbus-based grass-roots group.

Fracking: Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat by ProPublica, an online journalism site.

Penn State Marcellus Center.

Pipeline, blog from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Marcellus shale drilling.

Allegheny Front, environmental public radio for Western Pennsylvania.