Fracking Hell: An original investigative report by Earth Focus and UK's Ecologist Film Unit looks at the risks of natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale.
River water in western Pennsylvania has elevated levels of radioactivity, some of it from fluids discharged after natural gas extraction, says a new Duke University study that's likely to stir more controversy over the practice of hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracking."
Radium levels were about 200 times greater in sediment from a creek where wastewater was discharged from a treatment plant than in sediment upstream, according to the peer-reviewed study in the Environmental Science & Technology journal. The amount exceeded thresholds for safe disposal of radioactive waste. In addition, amounts of chloride and bromide in the water were two to ten times greater than normal.
“Even if, today, you completely stopped disposal of the wastewater,” Avner Vengosh, an Earth scientist from Duke says, there’s enough contamination built up that”you’d still end up with a place that the U.S. would consider a radioactive waste site.”
Radium is a radioactive metal naturally found in many rocks; long-term exposure to large amounts of radium can cause adverse health effects and even diseases such as leukemia.
Treatment plants can remove much of the radioactivity and chemicals -- but not all, the Duke study says. Between August 2010 and November 2012, researchers sampled sediment from Blacklick Creek, where wastewater was discharged by the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility about an hour east of Pittsburgh, and compared it with stream water above and below the disposal site. It found that some of the effluent came from Marcellus Shale fluids, which are naturally high in salinity and radioactivity.
The study is the latest research into the environmental impacts -- both water and the air -- of fracking. The process involves injecting mix of water, sand and proprietary chemicals deep into rock at high pressure, causing the rock to fracture and allowing methane gas to seep upward for extraction.
"Much of the concern over fracking has related to the seepage of these chemicals or methane from drilling wells into groundwater or the fact that high-pressure injection can trigger earthquakes, but the wastewater recently tested presents a separate, largely overlooked problem.
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."
"What's lacking is enforced monitoring," Vengosh says, adding that the samples collected by Duke suggest that radioactive water was still being discharged in 2012. He says more research is needed.
Scott Anderson,a drilling expert with the Environmental Defense Fund, a research and advocacy group, agrees. "The real problem," he says, "is we don't have a good handle on the full range of risks posed by treatment and discharge" of water from oil and gas fields.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to release a draft of its own study on fracking's potential impact on drinking water supplies in 2014.