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Duke University Study Finds Radioactive Waste in Creek Near Fracking Site

Oct 30, 2013

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As the national debate on hydraulic fracturing continues, a growing number of published studies point to potential dangers linked to the process. Among them is a paper written by two Duke University professors who report high levels of radioactivity in river water near a fracking site in western Pennsylvania.

Professors Robert Jackson and Avner Vengosh write in Environmental Science & Technology journal that they found highly elevated levels of radioactivity, salts, and metals in river water and sediments at the site where treated water from oil and gas operations are discharged.

"Radium levels were about 200 times greater in sediment samples collected where the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility discharges its treated wastewater into Blacklick Creek than in sediment samples collected just upstream of the plant," Vengosh said. "We expected to see some radioactive material, but nowhere near that much."

The study, released in early October, examined the quality of shale gas wastewater from hydraulic fracturing and the stream water above and below the disposal site. The Josephine Brine Treatment Facility is located about 50 miles from Pittsburgh.

The study found that some of the discharged effluent is derived from the Marcellus shale gas flowback water, which is naturally high in salinity and radioactivity.

The wastewater at Blacklack Creek in Western Pa. was found by Duke researchers to contain 200 times the normal amount of radioactive material. Credit: The wastewater at Blacklick Creek in Western Pa. was found by Duke researchers to contain 200 times the normal amount of radioactive material. Credit:

The Marcellus Shale has become a flashpoint in the fracking debate over the years. The region covers an enormous swath of Ohio and Pennsylvania where oil companies have been drilling extensively. It was the focus of a major contamination case in 2011 when the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined Chesapeake Energy $900,000 for contaminating the water supply in Bradford County in the southwestern Pennsylvania.

Residents there complained for months that their water was making them sick, and the DEP said the water contamination in Bradford County, which occurred in 2010, was caused by failures in the casing and cement that surround gas wells. The failures allowed methane to leak into water wells from shallow gas formations.

Additionally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) levied a $83,000 fine in May against Fluid Recovery Services, which acquired the Josephine plant in a merger, for discharge violations from that facility and two others in Pennsylvania. The agency required the company, which was bought this year by Aquatech International, to invest $30 million in upgrades before it can discharge more fracking wastewater. The EPA said the facilities stopped such discharges in September 2011.

The Duke study, however, focuses on wastewater, not drinking water. Jackson explained that he and Vengosh, professors at the university's Nicholas School for the Environment, examined Blacklick Creek as part of a larger study they are doing on the potential issue of groundwater contaminants.

"The company is disposing of the wastewater legally, we want to make that clear," he said. "And we have not found radioactivity in drinking water anywhere in the (Blacklick Creek) area. But the radioactivity in the wastewater is very high.

"For the radioactivity, the issue is what's in the sediment. The salt is holding onto that small amount of radioactivity, so the sediments in the water are holding onto the radioactivity. The salts are staying dissolved in the water, and the salt budget is dangerous because of the bromine issue."

Vengosh said Blacklick Creek was chosen randomly. The researchers are also looking at wastewater near fracking sites in Arkansas and Texas.

The Duke team also analyzed stream-bottom sediments for radium isotopes that are typically found in Marcellus wastewater.

"Although the facility's treatment process significantly reduced radium and barium levels in the wastewater, the amount of radioactivity that has accumulated in the river sediments still exceeds thresholds for safe disposal of radioactive materials," Vengosh said. "Years of disposal of oil and gas wastewater with high radioactivity has created potential environmental risks for thousands of years to come."

The Duke study has come under criticism from the oil and gas industry. Patrick Creighton, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, told USA Today that "the shale industry has not taken flow-back water to this treatment facility, or any similar facility, since May 2011."

"The industry critique is kind of sad," Vengosh fired back. "They should look at why this is happening. We show in the paper why there is continuous flowback into the site, and there there's no supervision to that site. They said they stopped it, but who's controlling it, and who's monitoring it? Those questions haven't been answered."

Jackson pointed out that the amount of wastewater has decreased through Blacklick Creek, "but it's not decreased to zero."

He added, "The (oil and gas) industry deserves a lot of credit for recycling more water, and re-using more water. There's less wastewater that's radioactive, but there's still plenty of it, and that's what is a concern."

"One of the determinations of the study," Vengosh added, "is that you can assume because of the high radioactivity of flowback, you can expect every time you see a disposal, you will see a buildup of radiation.

"People could get sick from this water, yes, but the other thing is accumulation of radium in the ecological system, and that's bad for wildlife."

Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser in the climate and energy program with the Environmental Defense Fund, said that naturally-occurring radioactive material (NORM) and a variation of it, called TE-NORM (TE stands for technologically enhanced) is of more concern.

"If you begin treating oil field waste, you still have a waystream, but as a result of the treatment, you can end up with a more enhanced, or concentrated waystream," Anderson said. "The levels of TE-NORM are of greater concern than the NORM."

Green & Clean Journal asked the Duke professors whether citizens who live near the Josephine facility should be concerned about their findings.

"If I lived there, I would be concerned about wastewater and wastewater products," Jackson said. "The public should be concerned, and industry is already concerned. I don't want to imply that they (the oil industry) don't care, because things are getting better. But anything they can do to reduce the amount of public wastewater exposure, they should be doing."