Dangerous Levels of Radioactivity Found at a Fracking Waste Site in Pennsylvania

A new study found elevated levels of chloride, bromide, and other chemicals in Marcellus Shale wastewater.

Charles Mostoller/ZUMA


This story first appeared on the Guardian website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Scientists have for the first time found dangerous levels of radioactivity and salinity at a shale gas waste disposal site that could contaminate drinking water. If the United Kingdom follows in the steps of the US “shale gas revolution,” it should impose regulations to stop such radioactive buildup, they said.

The Duke University study, published on Wednesday, examined the water discharged from Josephine Brine Treatment Facility into Blacklick Creek, which feeds into a water source for western Pennsylvania cities, including Pittsburgh. Scientists took samples upstream and downstream from the treatment facility over a two-year period, with the last sample taken in June this year.

Elevated levels of chloride and bromide, combined with strontium, radium, oxygen, and hydrogen isotopic compositions, are present in the Marcellus Shale wastewater, the study found.

Radioactive brine is naturally occurring in shale rock and contaminates wastewater during hydraulic fracturing—known as fracking. Sometimes that “flowback” water is reinjected into rock deep underground, a practice that can cause seismic disturbances, but often it is treated before being discharged into watercourses.

Radium levels in samples collected at the facility were 200 times greater than samples taken upstream. Such elevated levels of radioactivity are above regulated levels and would normally be seen at licensed radioactive disposal facilities, according to the scientists at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

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 bioaccumulation 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.

“In the UK, if shale gas is going to develop, it should not follow the American example and should impose environmental regulation to prevent this kind of radioactive buildup.”

The study also found elevated levels of salinity from the shale brine, which is 5 to 10 times more saline than sea water, that were 200-fold the regulated limit. Shale brine is also associated with high levels of bromide, which is not toxic by itself but turns into carcinogenic trihalomethanes during purification treatment.

The US Geological Service has previously reported elevated levels of radioactivity in “flowback” water that naturally occurs in the rock. But the Duke study, called “Impacts of Shale Gas Wastewater Disposal on Water Quality in Western Pennsylvania,” is the first to use isotope hydrology to connect the dots between shale gas waste, treatment sites, and discharge into drinking water supplies.

From January to June 2013, the 4,197 unconventional gas wells in Pennsylvania reported 3.5 meter barrels of fluid waste and 10.7 meter barrels of “produced” fluid. Most of that waste is disposed of within Pennsylvania, but some of it is also went to other states, such as Ohio and New York, despite its moratorium on shale gas exploration. In July, a treatment company in New York pleaded guilty to falsifying more than 3,000 water tests.

Earlier this year, Vengosh published another report that found higher methane, ethane, and propane concentrations in drinking water within a kilometer of shale gas drilling at 141 sites where drinking water samples were taken.

More MotherJones reporting on Climate Desk

OUR NEW CORRUPTION PROJECT

The more we thought about how MoJo's journalism can have the most impact heading into the 2020 election, the more we realized that so many of today's stories come down to corruption: democracy and the rule of law being undermined by the wealthy and powerful for their own gain.

So we're launching a new Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption. We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We'll publish what we find as a major series in the summer of 2020, including a special issue of our magazine, a dedicated online portal, and video and podcast series so it doesn't get lost in the daily deluge of breaking news.

It's unlike anything we've done before and we've got seed funding to get started, but we're asking readers to help crowdfund this new beat with an additional $500,000 so we can go even bigger. You can read why we're taking this approach and what we want to accomplish in "Corruption Isn't Just Another Scandal. It's the Rot Beneath All of Them," and if you like how it sounds, please help fund it with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate