Frack Waste Pollutes Allegheny Tributary with Radiation

  • A new study found elevated levels of radioactivity and chemicals in a tributary of the Allegheny River. Photo: Doug Kerr

October 11, 2013

The U.S. is expected to be the world’s top producer of petroleum and natural gas this year, surpassing Russia and Saudi Arabia for the first time. Much of the U.S. increase comes from hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania and the east coast.

But a new study finds all that gas exploration is polluting the water. Researchers at Duke University say Black Lick Creek, a tributary to the Allegheny River, has elevated levels of radioactivity and other chemicals because of wastewater from fracking.

The study findings sound scary: there’s radiation in a creek near Pittsburgh, just downstream of a plant that’s treated Marcellus shale waste water. A creek that feeds the Allegheny River, which supplies about half of the city of Pittsburgh’s drinking water.

Avner Vengosh says it’s not time to run out and buy bottled water, but there is a need for action. Vengosh is the lead scientist of a recent study that found radium levels in the water discharged from the Josephine Brine Treatment plant in Indiana County were 200 times higher than sediment upstream of the plant.

“We found that those constituents are actually attached into the stream sediments and have accumulated to the level that this should be designated as a radioactive disposal site, given this high level of radioactivity,” he says.

And Vengosh says that’s not the worst of what they found. While radioactivity might accumulate in the water over time, it’s expected to stay local. The bigger problem are bromides—salts found in the Marcellus shale that are released in fracking wastewater.

If it’s not treated properly, it accumulates in streams and rivers, and can form carcinogens in drinking water plants.

“So if anything, I would be worried about those compounds in drinking water,” says Vengosh.

The Marcellus shale is high in naturally occurring radiation, which can be found in frack water when it comes back to the surface after drilling. Most of this wastewater is reused by industry. But about 30-percent is treated and released back into the waterways.

Vengosh says it’s clear from the chemical makeup of the discharge his team studied that it comes from fracking operations.

But the state of Pennsylvania says, the new report is basically old news.

“Well the Duke University study is basically about what was, not what is," says Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Lisa Kasianowitz.

She says the DEP’s been onto the radium problem for years. In 2010, it created new rules that limited the radioactive material that could be discharged from new wastewater treatment plants, though older plants like Josephine were exempted from the requirement.

In 2012, the DEP also found high levels of radioactivity in Blacklick Creek.

“DEP has been monitoring that discharge and has an order for the owner of the treatment facility to clean up Blacklick Creek. So DEP is well aware of the radioactivity levels in that receiving waterway,” Kasianowitz says.

Kasianowitz says earlier this year the owners of the Josephine plant signed a consent order and decree. In it, the company agreed to remove polluted soil and sediments from the creek.

Duke’s Anver Vengosh would rather prevent the contamination in the first place. He says Pennsylvania shouldn’t allow companies to discharge frack waste water back into the rivers.

Kasioanowitz says that’s not really happening anymore.

“Very few do that. DEP has set high permit limits and has made it expensive for drilling operators.”

She says the state now has very low tolerance for radioactive discharges.

A spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, declined to go on tape for this story. But in a written statement, the coalition dismisses the Duke study as outdated. Josephine stopped accepting frack water in 2011, per a state request. So the Coalition says the researchers should look for other sources of radioactive materials and bromides.

But researchers at Duke say the DEP’s own data show 10 percent of the wastewater sent to the Josephine plant in 2011 was from fracking.

Vengosh says his team continued to find high levels of radioactivity and salinity as recently as June, despite Josephine’s voluntary agreement with DEP.

“It doesn’t matter, we still see 10 times the salinity of seawater of effluent being discharged into the streams of western Pennsylvania. So this is a fact, there’s no way you can actually dispute this fact of saline water flowing into the stream,” he says.

But back to the drinking water. The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority was concerned about radiation, and in 2011 initiated a year long monitoring program of tributaries to the Allegheny River. It did not find high radium levels in the Allegheny River, but did see increasing levels of potentially dangerous salt in the water. Part of the study was to find the source of that salinity. What they found: it was being discharged by industrial wastewater treatment plants, like Josephine.

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Transcript

October 11, 2013

The U.S. is expected to be the world’s top producer of petroleum and natural gas this year, surpassing Russia and Saudi Arabia for the first time. Much of the U.S. increase comes from hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania and the east coast.

But a new study finds all that gas exploration is polluting the water. Researchers at Duke University say Black Lick Creek, a tributary to the Allegheny River, has elevated levels of radioactivity and other chemicals because of wastewater from fracking.

The study findings sound scary: there’s radiation in a creek near Pittsburgh, just downstream of a plant that’s treated Marcellus shale waste water. A creek that feeds the Allegheny River, which supplies about half of the city of Pittsburgh’s drinking water. So, should we be worried?

Avner Vengosh says it’s not time to run out and buy bottled water, but there is a need for action. Vengosh is the lead scientist of a recent study that found radium levels in the water discharged from the Josephine Brine Treatment plant in Indiana County were 200 times higher than sediment upstream of the plant.

“We found that those constituents are actually attached into the stream sediments and have accumulated to the level that this should be designated as a radioactive disposal site, given this high level of radioactivity,” he says.

And Vengosh says that’s not the worst of what they found. While radioactivity might accumulate in the water over time, it’s expected to stay local. The bigger problem are bromides—salts found in the Marcellus shale that are released in fracking wastewater.

If it’s not treated properly, it accumulates in streams and rivers, and can form carcinogens in drinking water plants.

“So if anything, I would be worried about those compounds in drinking water,” Vengosh says.

The Marcellus shale is high in naturally occurring radiation, which can be found in frack water when it comes back to the surface after drilling. Most of this wastewater is reused by industry. But about 30 percent is treated and released back into the waterways.

Vengosh says it’s clear from the chemical makeup of the discharge his team studied that it comes from fracking operations.

But the state of Pennsylvania says, the new report is basically old news.

“Well the Duke University study is basically about what was, not what is,” says Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Lisa Kasianowitz.

She says the DEP’s been onto the radium problem for years. In 2010, it created new rules that limited the radioactive material that could be discharged from new wastewater treatment plants, though older plants like Josephine were exempted from the requirement.

In 2012, the DEP also found high levels of radioactivity in Blacklick Creek.

“DEP has been monitoring that discharge and has an order for the owner of the treatment facility to clean up Blacklick Creek. So DEP is well aware of the radioactivity levels in that receiving waterway,” says Kasianowitz.

Kasianowitz says earlier this year the owners of the Josephine plant signed a consent order and decree. In it, the company agreed to remove polluted soil and sediments from the Creek.

Duke’s Anver Vengosh would rather prevent the contamination in the first place. He says Pennsylvania shouldn’t allow companies to discharge frack waste water back into the rivers.

Kasioanowitz says that’s not really happening anymore.

“Very few do that. DEP has set high permit limits and has made it expensive for drilling operators,” she says. 

She says the state now has very low tolerance for radioactive discharges.

A spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, declined to go on tape for this story. But in a written statement, the coalition dismisses the Duke study as outdated. Josephine stopped accepting frack water in 2011, per a state request. So the Coalition says the researchers should look for other sources of radioactive materials and bromides.

But researchers at Duke say the DEP’s own data show 10 percent of the wastewater sent to the Josephine plant in 2011 was from fracking.

Vengosh says his team continued to find high levels of radioactivity and salinity as recently as June, despite Josephine’s voluntary agreement with DEP.

“It doesn’t matter, we still see 10 times the salinity of seawater of effluent being discharged into the streams of western Pennsylvania. So this is a fact, there’s no way you can actually dispute this fact of saline water flowing into the stream,” says Vengosh.

But back to the drinking water. The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority was concerned about radiation, and in 2011 initiated a year long monitoring program of tributaries to the Allegheny River. It did not find high radium levels in the Allegheny River, but did see increasing levels of potentially dangerous salt in the water. Part of the study was to find the source of that salinity. What they found: it was being discharged by industrial wastewater treatment plants, like Josephine.