‘Alarming’ presence of radioactivity found by Pennsylvania fracking wastewater study

A natural gas well is drilled near Canton, in Bradford County, Pennsylvania (Reuters)
Researchers have found high levels of radioactivity, salts, and metals in water and sediment located downstream from a treatment facility which processes fracking wastewater from oil and gas production sites in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale formation.

A Duke University team analyzed water and sediment samples from the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, finding radium levels 200 times greater than samples taken upstream from the plant and far higher than what’s allowed under the Clean Water Act.

Radium is a radioactive metal that can cause diseases like leukemia and other ill-health effects if one is exposed to large amounts over time.

The treatment facility processes flowback water - highly saline and radioactive wastewater that resurfaces from underground after being injected into rocks in the fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, process.

Fracking is the extraction of oil and gas by injecting water to break rock formations deep underground. Use of the process has increased rapidly in the US in recent years, yet scientists who have studied the practice warn of climate-damaging methane emissions and radioactive effects that come with it.

The study was published Wednesday in the Environmental Science and Technology journal. It focuses on two years of tests on wastewater flowing through Blacklick Creek from oil and gas production sites in western Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale formation.

For two years, the Duke team monitored sediment and river water above and below the treatment plant, as well as discharge coming directly from the plant, for various contaminants and levels of radioactivity. In the discharge and downstream water, researchers also found high levels of chloride, sulphate, and bromide, which can interact with chlorine and ozone - used to disinfect river water for drinking -to create a toxic byproduct.

“The treatment removes a substantial portion of the radioactivity, but it does not remove many of the other salts, including bromide,” said study co-author Avner Vengosh, a Duke professor of geochemistry, adding that traditional facilities like Brine aren’t made to remove these contaminants.

Though the Brine treatment facility strips some radium from fracking wastewater, high levels of metal still accumulate in sediment.

"The occurrence of radium is alarming - this is a radioactive constituent that is likely to increase rates of genetic mutation" and can be "a significant radioactive health hazard for humans," said William Schlesinger, a researcher and president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, who wasn't involved in the study.

Researchers believe the contaminants come from fracking sites because the Brine facility treats oil and gas wastewater which has the same chemical features as rocks in the Marcellus shale formation.

Some fracking wastewater is shipped by oil and gas companies to treatment plants like Brine to be processed and released into waterways. But most wastewater is reused for more fracking, Lisa Kasianowitz, an information specialist at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, told ClimateCentral.org.

Kasianowitz said the treatment facility is handling "conventional oil and gas wastewater in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations.”

Vengosh said that the research indicates that similar contamination may be happening around other fracking locations along the Marcellus shale formation in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York.