News Analysis: Regulators React to Threat of Radium in Pennsylvania Rivers

Last week a New York Times investigative series on natural gas drilling got a lot of attention. It raised questions about radioactivity from drilling wastewater and concludes that industry and political pressure have slowed down government efforts to regulate gas development. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray joins Jennifer Szweda Jordan to talk about the response from state and federal regulators.

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OPEN: Last week a New York Times' investigative series on natural gas drilling got a lot of attention. It raised questions about radioactivity from drilling wastewater and concludes that industry and political pressure have slowed down government efforts to regulate gas development. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray joins me to talk about the response from state and federal regulators.

JORDAN: Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection just released the results of two months of testing for radium in some of the waterways that have discharges from treatment plants that accept Marcellus wastewater.

What does the DEP say the tests show?

MURRAY: The agency says the seven rivers they tested had levels at or below normal naturally occurring background levels for radium. The New York Times reported concentrations in wastewater samples at 116 of 179 deep gas wells. These were 100 to one thousand times higher than federal standards for radium in drinking water. †The Times says that the DEP only began testing in November after the paper requested internal documents about radiation testing.

JORDAN: Which rivers were tested by the DEP?

MURRAY: The Monongahela at Charleroi in Washington County; South Fork Ten Mile Creek in Greene County; Conemaugh in Indiana County; Allegheny at Kennerdell in Venango County; Beaver in Beaver County; Tioga in Tioga County; and the West Branch of the Susquehanna in Lycoming County.

JORDAN: EPA director Lisa Jackson just made a special trip to EPA Region 3 headquarters in Philadelphia to talk about the agency's response to the Times' findings. EPA also sent a letter to DEP. †What's the federal agency saying?

MURRAY: †Jackson said the EPA will study radiation in drilling wastewater in its current hydrofracturing study. †The letter was sent by EPA's Region 3 office.

JORDAN: The Times contends that EPA scientists and lawyers are split over their opinions about the legality of discharging gas drilling wastewater into waterways after it has received what critics call "minimal treatment."

MURRAY: †Some EPA scientists and lawyers believe that DEP shouldn't even permit wastewater facilities to take drilling wastes because these plants are not set up to handle the high level of salts and metals in drilling waters. They also contend that sewage treatment plants shouldn't accept wastewater unless operators know all of the contents in the fracking fluids. The Times reports that EPA has gotten pressure from the White House environment and energy staff to stay away from rigorous enforcement of the wastewater specifically in Pennsylvania.


JORDAN: Congress asked EPA to go back and study hydrofracking. And some of EPA's own scientists think this and earlier studies are saying the study is being limited in scope by outside pressures.

MURRAY: According to the Times, a review of the original study and internal EPA documents show that the agency dropped some plans to model radioactivity in drilling wastewater that is discharged by treatment plants into rivers. †And they say the agency also eliminated plans to review the dangers of toxic fumes released during drilling, as well as the impact of drilling waste on the food chain. The Times reports that Senators like James Inhofe and Tom Coburn, Republicans from gas rich Oklahoma are pressing the EPA to narrow the scope of its study. †EPA denies that this study or other decisions about regulating gas drilling have been influenced by industry or political pressure.

JORDAN: We've had several posts on our Facebook page in the last week about this topic. †One person posted a message concerned that the Clarion River wasn't one of those tested, in spite of drilling wastewater disposal in the river. †And you asked the DEP about that...

MURRAY: Yes, †Katy Gresh, spokesperson for DEP's Southwest office hasn't given me any definitive reason - we're still waiting for a reason why the Clarion wasn't tested.

JORDAN: Another listener commented on Facebook that he's praying there's no radiation in the water and he's interested in testing from independent agencies like Pitt. Any news on that? †

MURRAY: We know the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority along the Allegheny and Pennsylvanian American Water Company with several plants along the Mon say they are going to start testing their drinking water for radium...we'll see who else jumps in....

JENNIFER: †Thanks, Ann. †Keep your questions coming on facebook and on our website -- alleghenyfront.org where we have links to the NY Times investigation Ö.

JORDAN: Thanks, Ann.

MURRAY: Sure, Jennifer.