News Analysis: Is Radiation From Gas Drilling Wastewater In Our Drinking Water?

The New York Times has done a nine-month review of thousands of documents from the US EPA, state regulators and natural gas drilling companies. The Times concludes that wastewater from natural gas production has high levels of radiation that poses bigger dangers to public health and the environment. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray and Reid Frazier talk about the results of the investigation and the response from PA regulators and water treatment operators.

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OPEN: The New York Times has done a nine-month review of thousands of regulatory and industry documents. The Times concludes that toxic wastewater from natural gas production has high levels of radiation and that radiation poses bigger dangers to public health and the environment than originally thought. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray and Reid Frazier talk about the results of the investigation and the response from Pennsylvania environmental regulators and water treatment operators.

HOLSOPPLE: Why did the New York Times focus on Pennsylvania?

MURRAY: I think there were a couple reasons. Pennsylvania is the only gas state that allows drilling companies to dispose of wastewater into rivers once it's gone through wastewater treatment and the number of wells drilled and fracked in the state has skyrocketed in the last three years. There are about 71,000 active wells here. About 3,000 of those wells are deep shale wells.

HOLSOPPLE: It's been known for some time that natural gas drilling in the Marcellus produces toxic wastes and salts. What do these internal documents reviewed by the Times show?

MURRAY: The biggest news is that the Times has uncovered a potential risk of radiation pollution in waterways. Documents show drilling wastewater contains levels of radium, which is a naturally occuring radioactive element at higher levels than have been previously recognized and that radium could be ending up in rivers which are drinking water supplies for millions of Pennsylvanians. DEP has said that radium in drilling wastewater is not a threat to drinking water supplies because of dilution by wastewater treatment and by rivers. But according to the Times, never-released EPA studies from 2009 and a confidential study by the drilling industry indicate that the radiation is never sufficiently diluted by rivers and streams.

HOLSOPPLE: How high are the radiation levels?

MURRAY: The level of radioactivity in the wastewater has sometimes been hundreds or even thousands of times the maximum allowed by the federal standard for drinking water.

HOLSOPPLE: Are wastewater treatment plants required to test for radiation?

MURRAY: No. Under federal law wastewater treatment facilities don't have to test for radiation.

HOLSOPPLE: Well, does the DEP require water treatment plants to test for radiation in drinking water?

MURRAY. Under federal law, testing for radioactivity in drinking water is mandatory only at drinking-water plants. But federal and state regulators have given nearly all drinking-water facilities in Pennsylvania permission to test only once every six or nine years. Most drinking-water intake plants that are downstream from those sewage treatment plants taking drilling waste haven't tested for radioactivity since before 2006, even though the drilling boom began in 2008. Pennsylvania American Water Company with three plants in southwestern PA downstream from these wastewater discharges says its plants haven't tested for radium since 2003, though they did test for other forms of radiation in 2008, and the water was at acceptable levels.

HOLSOPPLE: So if there's no testing by wastewater or drinking water plants, are rivers being tested for radiation by the state?

MURRAY: The Times reports that after the paper got internal documents from the DEP, the DEP in November 2010 set up water quality monitors on six rivers that receive wastewater including the Monongahela River, the Allegheny and West branch of the Susquehanna.
Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is also going to test for radiation in the Allegheny according to Stanley States, director of Water Quality at PWSA.

HOLSOPPLE: When will the DEP release its monitoring results?

MURRAY: The New York Times says this month but DEP wouldn't confirm a release date. In fact DEP wasn't very responsive with information or answers to questions we had....but did say that water quality testing for radium is still ongoing. John Hanger, the former head of the DEP told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that his agency has done a good job regulating the gas industry but says "test the water."

HOLSOPPLE: Bottom line, how much of a danger is radiation to our drinking water?

MURRAY: The answer is experts don't know right now. The Times looked at data from 200 wells in Pennsylvania and 40 in West Virginia. The paper found that of the 180 producing wastewater with high levels of radiation, at least 116 reported levels of radium or other radioactive materials 100 times as high as the levels set by federal drinking-water standards. At least 15 wells produced wastewater carrying more than 1,000 times the amount of radioactive elements considered acceptable. Without any data from rivers that receive the wastewater or drinking water plants, it's hard to figure out the exact risks. Our colleague Reid Frazier talked with Avner Vengosh at Duke University about radiation and its potential risks to public health.

FRAZIER: That's right Ann. Vengosh is geochemist who's studied water in deep underground aquifers. He told me that radium takes several forms, or isotopes. The kind of radium isotype found in the brine from gas drilling is a naturally occurring byproduct of uranium, which is found in the Marcellus shale. Think of radium as a descendant of some very old radioactive material. In fact, scientists call it a "daughter isotope" of uranium.

VENGOSH: When this uranium in the shale over millions of years decays into daughter isotopes; some of them, like radium would be typically removed from rock into water.

Now, radium in the water that comes back above the ground poses a public health risk, owing to its chemical makeup and its close resemblance to a vital nutrient the body needs to build bone--calcium.

VENGOSH: In a nutshell because of very similar chemical affinities of radium to calcium, when people would consume water with high radium, the radium will go into the body

FRAZIER: where it becomes part of the bone. This is a very radioactive element, and at high concentrations, can damage bone cells. Long term radium exposure has been linked to bone cancer and leukemia. What happens if radium gets in the water supply? Vengosh said it can be taken out through relatively simple processes like ion exchange or water softening - just like what some people use to take minerals out of their water at home. But the problems don't end there, he says.

VENGOSH: The problem is the process of ion exhange or softener would generate brine in which radium concentration in brine would be even higher, so you going to end up with low radioactive waste that you need to put it somewhere and the local landfill would not be suitable.

Now Vengosh and other scientists caution that we don't know how much, if radium is from hydraulic fracturing is entering the water supply. But they certainly stress it's not something you ever want coming out of your tap.

HOLSOPPLE: Thanks Reid and Ann. We'll continue to follow this story and continue to get DEP to answer our questions.