By modern definition, anything that threatens the safety of air, food and water is classified as bioterrorism. However, the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing (frac, frack, or fracking), is a legitimate threat to public and environmental health. Yet, the practice is proliferating around the globe. Its contents remain mostly a mystery. But fracking wastewater has revealed one of its secrets: It can be highly radioactive. And yet no agency really regulates its handling, transport or disposal.
The oil and gas industry can’t prove that the practice is safe. Instead, they hide behind ignorance and misinformation. They say that there is no proof of harm. Not so fast, slick. As the following story outlines, the evidence is real, measurable and mounting.
Randy Moyer hasn’t been able to work in 14 months. He’s seen more than 40 doctors, has 10 prescriptions to his name and no less than eight inhalers stationed around his apartment.
Moyer said he began transporting brine, the wastewater from gas wells that have been hydraulically fractured, for a small hauling company in August 2011. He trucked brine from wells to treatment plants and back to wells, and sometimes cleaned out the storage tanks used to hold wastewater on drilling sites. By November 2011, the 49-year-old trucker was too ill to work. He suffered from dizziness, blurred vision, headaches, difficulty breathing, swollen lips and appendages, and a fiery red rash that covered about 50 percent of his body.
“They called it a rash,” he said of the doctors who treated him during his 11 trips to the emergency room. “A rash doesn’t set you on fire.”
Moyer spent most of last year in his Portage apartment, lying on the floor by the open screen door because his skin burned so badly, while doctors scrambled to reach a diagnosis. He says the only thing that has helped ease his symptoms is a homeopathic tea recommended by others in the community who have similar symptoms.
Today, he has a box brimming with doctors’ bills but still no diagnosis. Moyer believes he’s sick from the chemicals in fracking fluid and the ensuing wastewater — and from radiation exposure. And he may be right.
Studies from the U.S. Geological Survey, Penn State University and environmental groups all found that waste from fracking can be radioactive — and in some cases, highly radioactive.
A geological survey report found that millions of barrels of wastewater from unconventional wells in Pennsylvania and conventional wells in New York were 3,609 times more radioactive than the federal limit for drinking water and 300 times more radioactive than a Nuclear Regulatory Commission limit for nuclear plant discharges.
And Mark Engle, the USGS research geologist who co-authored the report, said that fracking flowback from the Marcellus shale contains higher radiation levels than similar shale formations.
“There (isn’t) a lot of data but in general, the Marcellus appears to be anomalously high,” Engle said. He said the USGS had agreements with a handful of oil and gas companies to sample the flowback from their wells for this particular report. These companies, he said, did not wish to be identified.
Engle also says that both the Marcellus shale itself and the wastewater generated from fracking are both radioactive, but he doesn’t know just how much radium the shale contains. He said it “may be fairly small, since radium is so soluble.” But he also said this solubility would make it easier for the radium to dissolve into the brine itself — and come to the surface.
The USGS is still studying the issue. They are currently sampling — or testing — produced waters from all types of oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, North Dakota and Montana, including those from the Marcellus shale. A few more reports are in the works, Engle said.
A recent study by an undergraduate student and two professors in Penn State’s Department of Geosciences also found that fracking wastewater contains high levels of radium — and barium.
The study, written by Penn State alum Lara Haluszczak, professor emeritus Arthur Rose, and professor and head of the Department of Geosciences Lee Kump, describes the radium and barium found in fracking flowback as originating from ancient brines instead of the fracking fluid used by the industry to frack wells. The report, which focused on flowback within 90 days of fracking in primarily Pennsylvania wells, has been approved for publication in the International Association of Geochemistry’s journal Applied Geochemistry.
“Even if it’s (radioactive materials) diluted quite a bit, it’s still going to be above the drinking water limits,” Rose told Penn State Live, the university’s official news source. “There’s been very little research into this.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has an eye on the issue. In December, the agency released the progress report of a full report studying the effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources. In it, the EPA says it plans to sample ground and surface water for radium-226, radium-229 and gross alpha and beta radiation, as well as other substances. It also says that hydraulic fracturing can increase the mobility of naturally occurring radioactive material within the Marcellus. The full report is scheduled for a 2014 release.
Another report, issued by the New York-based Grassroots Environmental Education by Ivan White, a career scientist for the National Council on Radiation Protection, came to a similar conclusion as the USGS and Penn State reports, maintaining that fracking can produce waste much higher in radiation than previously thought.
White’s report tested 11 vertical wells that were conventionally drilled in New York and found that levels of radium in those wells averaged at 8,433 picocuries per liter. The EPA’s limit for drinking water is 5 pCi/L for both radium-226 and radium-228 combined.
While the vertical wells tested and horizontal wells used for fracking are undoubtedly different, both White and Engle say that horizontal wells have a higher chance of producing radioactive waste than their vertical counterparts, because horizontal wells’ exposure to the Marcellus is much greater, due to the mile-long horizontal bores coursing straight through the radioactive shale.
White’s report was written in response to proposed fracking in the Marcellus region of southern New York state.
So where does this leave Pennsylvanians? With the state’s 4,500 producing wells, Pennsylvania is already much deeper into the business of fracking than the Empire State.
And that means more potentially radioactive fracking waste to deal with.
A 2011 Penn State Extension report says an average Marcellus well can use from 3 million to 8 million gallons of water in just one week, 10 percent of which — or 300,000 to 800,000 gallons — resurfaces in the next 30 days in the form of wastewater. It also says that according to Pennsylvania’s DEP data, the industry produced about 235 million gallons of wastewater in the second half of 2010. These numbers were self-reported by the industry.
So just where do these millions of gallons of wastewater end up? The water can be treated and used to frack more wells, sent out of state for disposal in injection wells, or in rare cases, treated and released into waterways, officials say.
“Secretary (Michael) Krancer’s call to industry secured, nearly overnight, a sea change in disposal practices,” said DEP spokesman John Poister of the department secretary’s 2011 request to the drilling industry to stop delivering wastewater to treatment plants that would treat the water and release it into public water sources.
“Wastewater from unconventional wells is not being discharged into waterways, (and) recycling of unconventional flowback and brines has never been higher,” Poister said. He also said most of the industry’s fracking wastewater is reused to frack more wells.
But Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action, isn’t convinced.
“I can’t say for certain that there are plants definitely taking wastewater and discharging it,” he said. “Certainly there are discharges happening from facilities that raise concerns, especially among the upper Allegheny (River).” Hvozdovich declined to identify specific facilities.
“Is it possible they are taking natural gas wastewater?” he said. “Yes, but I don’t know that for a fact.”
And Poister does — if reluctantly — admit there could be some fracking wastewater finding its way into waterways.
“It can, but that would be a rarity,” he said. “We believe most wastewater is recycled, and the data on the statewide waste reports bears that out. Drillers would have to pay to have the water treated for discharge into waterways, (so) it’s more cost-efficient for them to recycle. There is some wastewater from other drilling activities and other sources that is discharged after treating, which is why under the state’s Clean Water Act, Pennsylvania’s DEP issues National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits to treatment facilities.”
These permits are required to be issued under the Federal Clean Water Act and establish pollution limits in both household and industrial wastes that are treated at municipal wastewater treatment plants, DEP data says. In order to be discharged, the water must fall within the agency’s 500 mg/L of total dissolved solids regulation and also have a NPDS permit.
But environmentalists say these treatment plants simply aren’t equipped to deal with radioactive wastewater.
“As fracking has rapidly expanded, we’re seeing much more of this radioactive waste, which is a problem, since traditional landfills and wastewater treatment plants aren’t accustomed to handling it,” said Adam Kron, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. “In fact, wastewater treatment plants aren’t able to remove radioactivity, and we’re starting to hear accounts of landfills receiving — and sometimes turning away — radioactive cuttings and sand from across state lines.”
And as for Moyer, there are five recently permitted wells near his home in Portage. He plans to leave the area, if not for himself, then for his 7-year-old son. He doesn’t think his body can take more exposure to fracking and its effects.
“It’s time to move if you want to live,” he said. “Stay if you want to die. And I want to live.”