photo via Gasland
The New York Times has published an explosive article in its Sunday edition that features unreleased government documents that show levels of radiation in drinking water in some places are significantly higher than previously recognized due to drilling for natural gas. Treehugger readers know that the natural gas drilling technique, known as high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is under increased scrutiny, including in the Oscar-nominated GasLand, and citizens and regulators are increasingly concerned that fracking is extremely dangerous. Fracking involves using a highly-pressurized mixture of sand, water and chemicals to blast away rock to release natural gas hidden deep under the earth's surface. Millions of gallons of water can be used at a site, and the NY Times has found EPA documents that say this water cannot be made safe at treatment centers. Despite this, radioactive wastewater is going back in to waterways, and thus into the taps of unsuspecting people.
From the Times:
The risks are particularly severe in Pennsylvania, which has seen a sharp increase in drilling, with roughly 71,000 active gas wells, up from about 36,000 in 2000. 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. While people clearly do not drink drilling wastewater, the reason to use the drinking-water standard for comparison is that there is no comprehensive federal standard for what constitutes safe levels of radioactivity in drilling wastewater.
Drillers trucked at least half of this waste to public sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania in 2008 and 2009, according to state officials. Some of it has been sent to other states, including New York and West Virginia.
Yet sewage treatment plant operators say they are far less capable of removing radioactive contaminants than most other toxic substances. Indeed, most of these facilities cannot remove enough of the radioactive material to meet federal drinking-water standards before discharging the wastewater into rivers, sometimes just miles upstream from drinking-water intake plants.
The article goes on to detail how mining companies have been allowed to outsource the cleaning of the wastewater to treatment plants and the effect it is having in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. It's a must read for anyone concerned about the environmental impacts of fracking, which should be everyone.