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Our Radioactive Fracking Water

Our Mon River tap water now has high bromide levels and probably worse. Ever hear of Radium-226?

November 17, 2010 -
In my two previous blogs, Our Chunky Fracking Water and Our Chunky Fracking Water Part 2, readers were introduced to issues that have developed in the Monongahela River (“The Mon”) since Marcellus Shale drilling got underway in southwestern Pennsylvania. The Mon River is the source of our tapwater, along with another 350,000 people in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.

Since my last blog on our Mon River tapwater there have been a few changes:

  • Marcellus drilling has greatly increased in our area and Pennsylvania in general, with drilling activity set to double again next year.

  • Recent election results will create a very pro-drilling attitude in our state capitol over the next few years.

  • More Marcellus Shale drilling companies have been bought-out by large oil companies and/or multi-national corporations.

  • The DEP instituted new standards for the level of TDS (total dissolved solids) dumped into the Mon River and other waterways in Pennsylvania (500mg/l).

  • Bromide levels have increased in the Mon River, further linking Marcellus drilling activities to our water quality problems.

  • Since Mon River water has exceeded safe TDS levels for the third year running, groups have called for the DEP to declare the Mon an “impaired river.”

  • The Pennsylvania DEP has been successfully challenged on riparian rights and its illegal permitting of water withdrawals by Marcellus Shale drilling companies.

But the most disturbing topic of all, even after all those, is the elephant in the room. And he’s glowing. It’s the one you hear mentioned occasionally, but never really discussed – Marcellus Shale is radioactive. “So what” you say, that stuff is over a mile deep around Pittsburgh. And you may even buy into all the PR from the drilling companies when they tell you the shale is so deep it has no chance of contaminating drinking water. Of course those who have read my first two installments of this blog on the Mon River KNOW that Marcellus drilling already HAS contaminated the drinking water of hundreds of thousands people, myself included. While everyone’s focus is on water wells, not enough attention has been placed on the wastewater being “legally” dumped into our rivers.

This takes us to Radioactivity in Marcellus Shale (PDF), the title of a report released by a group of radioactive waste specialists in May 2010. They were contracted by a group of concerned Residents for the Preservation of Lowman and Chemung (RFPLC) in New York. They are trying to defend themselves from the radioactive waste that is being hauled into New York from Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale drilling. While the paper is very technical, it is also very readable.

The report brings up another big question about our Mon River tapwater, does it also contain Radium-226, due to all the inadequately processed drilling wastewater still being dumped into the Mon River?  Probably.

The report discusses Radium-226 and what it means to us in these very telling sentences:

“Radioactivity in the Marcellus shale results from the high content of naturally occurring radioactive uranium and thorium, their decay products including Ra-226, and radioactive potassium elements. The evidence of high radionuclide content is present in geochemical studies and in gamma-ray logs from wells drilled into the Marcellus formation.” 

(The abbreviation NORM is often used for “naturally occurring radioactive material”)  

To paraphrase more key portions of that report:

“There are several steps in the Marcellus shale drilling process that allow radionuclides, particularly Radium-226, to concentrate in liquid waste. Radium-226 is a highly water-soluble radionuclide and will preferentially dissolve in the drilling fluid under the pressure and temperature conditions below ground. When produced water is brought to the surface, it carries with it dissolved solids and other compounds that may be present in the reservoir and rock formation, including Ra-226.”

(Now we get to the most disturbing part of the report…)

Radium-226 has a half-life of 1600 years and, if deposited in a landfill, will remain there essentially forever. If the landfill is ever inhabited in the future, crops grown in the soil will concentrate radium and be ingested. As we (previously) noted, exposures to landfill workers and those who eat fruits and vegetables grown more than 1,000 years in the future over the closed landfill would exceed current health-based dose limits. Ra-226 is a carcinogen and, when ingested or inhaled, concentrates in the bone and can cause leukemia.”

Three weeks ago I had the opportunity to personally ask the Secretary of the Pennsylvania DEP, John Hanger, one question when he was on a Town Hall panel at WQED-TV:

I asked Secretary Hanger:
When are we going to quit dumping Marcellus wastewater into our rivers?

Of course his answer alluded to improvements made by the new 500 mg/l TDS standard imposed in August 2010, which he said brings this dumped wastewater up to “drinking water standards.” While the secretary probably wasn’t trying to be deceptive, the term “drinking water standards” is still very deceptive. This doesn’t mean it would be anything fit to drink, only that the clarity of the water is at “drinking water standards.” Clarity, mind you, not purity. It’s what you can’t see that often kills you. Or makes you real sick.

Stuck on Stupid

When I testified in front of the EPA at their Southpointe hearing in July, my comments included this:

“Partially treated wastewater is still being dumped in our drinking water. Where else in the US is that being done?  None that I have found. We are stuck on stupid, contaminating our own drinking water. They are poisoning the state we love.”


P.S. The rest of the story -
In light of what we just learned in the report about the radioactivity of Marcellus Shale, consider how some drilling companies have been "restoring" their drilling sites to conditions they say are "as good or better" than before.

The pits you see in the photos below are called "production pits" or "separation pits." These pits have held the most concentrated drill cuttings and Marcellus drilling fluids during the drilling process. Is this concentrated material hauled away?

On the two pads shown below -- NO.
It is being dug into the ground and left for eternity. If this is your leased land, you are left with the toxic waste and the liability.

What about your ground water and water well?

Out of sight, out of (your) mind!

The man behind the curtain



Fracking at Marcellus Shale Site: Hydraulic Fracturing Increases Radionuclides

Scientists: Drilling threat to water

Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Water Hits Pa. Rivers

As Pennsylvania Implements New Wastewater Rules, Some State Waterways Still Face Problems

Natural Gas Drilling Produces Radioactive Wastewater

Radium 226
Inhaled or ingested radium increases the risk of developing such diseases as lymphoma, bone cancer, and diseases that affect the formation of blood, such as leukemia and aplastic anemia. These effects usually take years to develop.

'Fracking' Mobilizes Uranium in Marcellus Shale, UB Research Finds
"We found that the uranium and the hydrocarbons are in the same physical space. We found that they are not just physically -- but also chemically -- bound."



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