Pennsylvania wants Water Tested for Radioactive Fracking Waste

Pennsylvania environmental regulators said yesterday they will begin testing drinking water supplies for radioactive materials, following a push from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The state’s action follows a New York Times expose published last month that revealed potentially radioactive wastewater from hydraulic fracturing could be making its way into rivers, lakes and streams that serve as drinking water supplies for millions of Pennsylvanians.

According to the Times’ report, some Pennsylvania natural gas drillers ship potentially toxic and radioactive fracking wastewater to sewage treatment plants in the state not equipped to treat it. This fracking wastewater, which has only been partially treated, is later released into Pennsylvania waterways. The Times’ 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.

According to the Associated Press, most natural gas states require drillers to dump their wastewater into deep underground shafts called injection wells to prevent it from contaminating surface or ground water. But in Pennsylvania, partially treated wastewater is permitted to be released into waterways. Some of the fracking wastewater is also reused or trucked out-of-state for disposal underground.

On March 7, the EPA’s regional administrator, Shawn Garvin, sent letter asking Pennsylvania to begin more water testing to make sure drinking water isn’t being contaminated by drillers. The letter asked Pennsylvania to re-examine permits previously issued to the treatment plants handling the waste.

According to the Associated Press, the acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Michael Krancer, wrote the EPA on Wednesday to say that he has requested additional testing from 14 public water authorities and 25 wastewater treatment facilities. The facilities are being asked to check for radium, uranium and the salty dissolved solids that could potentially make drilling wastewater environmentally damaging.

In his letter to the EPA, Krancer also said that “requirements to monitor for substances of concern will be added to permits upon renewal and where warranted.”

The disclosures in the New York Times’ fracking expose created an uproar in Pennsylvania. Shortly after it was published, two Pennsylvania water companies – the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, which serves the city of Pittsburgh, and Pennsylvania American Water Co. – announced that they would begin testing water for radioactivity. 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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