This week, scientists from Duke University published evidence that dangerous levels of radioactive water from natural gas drilling operations is being released into streams that feed into the water supply of western Pennsylvania cities, including Pittsburgh. The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, found radium levels 200 times higher than normal in water downstream from the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility, which processes waste water from natural gas fracking operations. In addition to the radioactive radium, the water also contained bromide, which can create cancer-causing compounds when combined with chemicals used to treat water.
Joseph Stromberg at Smithsonian Mag has a good summary of how these naturally occurring compounds are made more dangerous by natural gas drilling:
Between 10 and 40 percent of fluid sent down during fracking resurfaces, carrying contaminants with it. Some of these contaminants may be present in the fracking water to begin with. But others are leached into the fracking water from groundwater trapped in the rock it fractures.
Radium, naturally present in the shales that house natural gas, falls into the latter category—as the shale is shattered to extract the gas, groundwater trapped within the shale, rich in concentrations of the radioactive element, is freed and infiltrates the fracking wastewater.
Other states require this wastewater to be pumped back down into underground deposit wells sandwiched between impermeable layers of rock, but because Pennsylvania has few of these cavities, it is the sole state that allows fracking wastewater to be processed by normal wastewater treatment plants and released into rivers.
These plants, many scientists note, are not designed to handle the radioactive elements present in the wastewater. Neither are they required to test their effluent for radioactive elements. As a result, many researchers have suspected that the barely-studied water they release into local streams retains significant levels of radioactivity.
Felicity Carus at The Guardian reports on the scale of this such a serious problem for Pennsylvania and other states where natural gas drillers operate:
Hundreds of disposal sites for wastewater could be similarly affected, said Professor Avner Vengosh, one of the authors of the study published in Environmental Science & Technology, a peer-reviewed journal.
"If people don't live in those places, it's not an immediate threat in terms of radioactivity," said Vengosh. "However, there's the danger of slow bio-accumulation of the radium. It will eventually end up in fish and that is a biological danger."
Shale gas production is exempt from the Clean Water Act and the industry has pledged to self-monitor its waste production to avoid regulatory oversight.
However, the study clearly showed the need for independent monitoring and regulation, said Vengosh.
"What is happening is the direct result of a lack of any regulation. If the Clean Water Act was applied in 2005 when the shale gas boom started this would have been prevented.
Stromberg notes that there are ways to treat waste water from fracking, but that the lack of regulations means gas companies are not required to invest in these more expensive, but safer treatment processes:
The study—which is part of a larger Duke project studying the effect of fracking on water—doesn’t show that fracking is inherently unsafe, but does show that without proper controls, the wastewater being dumped into the environment daily represents a very real danger for local residents.
Vengosh notes that there are better methods of treating fracking wastewater (he points to the plants operated by Eureka Resources as a model for adequately removing radioactivity), but these are more expensive to operate. But currently, without the push of federal regulations, companies looking to dispose of wastewater have no incentive to pay for this type of solution.
The recent natural gas boom in the US has had no shortage of environmental horrors. Flammable drinking water, flooded wells, earthquakes, dangerous methane emissions, and entire towns running out of water, just to name a few. And now we can radioactive water to the list. Dangerous side effects like these are the result of the natural gas industry's reckless boom behavior of drill first, ask questions later. It's time for this industry to be properly regulated for the benefit of our economy, our environment and our health.