Pennsylvania Says Radioactive Fracking Wastewater Not Tainting Rivers, but EPA Wants More Tests

Pennsylvania and federal regulators have different views about the dumping of radioactive fracking wastewater from Marcellus shale natural gas drilling into the state’s rivers and streams. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) says its monitoring of seven state rivers has not indicated the high levels of radioactivity that were found in wastewater from Pennsylvania hydraulic fracturing operations. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has told the state that its testing did not go far enough.

The disposal of radioactive fracking wastewater received national attention last week when The New York Times reported that some Pennsylvania natural gas drillers are shipping potentially toxic and radioactive hydraulic fracking wastewater to sewage treatment plants not equipped to treat it. This fracking wastewater, which has only been partially treated, is later released into rivers and streams used as sources of drinking water by millions of Pennsylvanians.

The Times’ fracking investigation, which drew on thousands of previously secret government and industry documents, reported that 116 of 179 Marcellus shale wells in Pennsylvania had high levels of radiation in wastewater samples. The documents included studies which found that dumping radioactive fracking waste into waterways does not sufficiently dilute it.

Yesterday, the Pennsylvania DEP announced that water quality monitoring for radioactive materials it conducted late last year downriver from sewage treatment plants that accept Marcellus Shale wastewater had found no elevated radioactivity levels in the seven rivers monitored. According to the state, the testing indicated that water quality met or exceeded federal standards.

The testing involved raw water in the rivers and creeks at locations where public water suppliers have intakes, according to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said. The waterways tested included the Monongahela River in Washington County; South Fork Ten Mile Creek in Greene County; Conemaugh River in Indiana County; Allegheny River in Kennerdell in Venango County; Beaver River in Beaver County; Tioga Creek in Tioga County; and the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in Lycoming County.

But in a letter to the Pennsylvania DEP, the EPA urged more testing. According to The Wall Street Journal, the letter said the tests from last year “indicate that wastewater resulting from gas drilling operations…contains variable and sometimes high concentrations of materials that may present a threat to human health and aquatic environment.” Those materials include radionuclides, organic chemicals, metals and dissolved solids, the EPA said. The agency added that concentrations of radium might vary depending on the source and volume of the wastewater as well as the flow of the waterway.

According to The New York Times, the letter instructed Pennsylvania officials to perform testing within 30 days for radioactivity at drinking-water intake plants, and to review all permits issued by the state to treatment plants handling Marcellus shale waste to ensure that operators were complying with the law. Finally, the EPA wants the state to provide data and documents so it could check whether current permits were strict enough.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the EPA also said it planned to inspect wastewater treatment facilities in the state’s natural-gas fields.

The disclosures in the New York Times’ fracking expose have created an uproar in Pennsylvania. Last week, for instance, we reported that the Times’ revelations had prompted two Pennsylvania water companies – the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, which serves the city of Pittsburgh, and Pennsylvania American Water Co. – to announce that they would begin testing water for radioactivity in the coming weeks. Those announcements followed a resolution passed by Pittsburgh City Council which called on Pennsylvania’s governor to include funding in the state budget to inform the public of the condition of their drinking water.

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