Fracking is Elevating Radioactivity in the Air, Land and Water

“Government Failed You”

(Updated blog from December 14, 2019)

The team at Public Herald, headed by Joshua B. Pribanic, has done an extraordinary job of shining a spotlight on most of the regulatory “fracking faults” in Pennsylvania, especially ones related to the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). While their factual, in-depth reports aren’t always seen in mainstream news media, everyone should be following them.

Image: Pennsylvania DEP office building in Harrisburg, Pa.

Public Herald’s latest story:

“Government Failed You” — Pittsburgh State Rep. Drafts Bill to Stop Radioactive Fracking Waste (TENORM) From Entering Public Waters
December 10, 2019 – Pittsburgh’s Freshman State Representative Sara Innamorato is drafting a bill to regulate TENORM (Technically Enhanced Radioactive Material) from fracking waste in response to Public Herald’s leachate investigation. Innamorato’s effort would take on a regulatory loophole described in Public Herald’s August 2019 report that allows radioactive fracking waste dumped at landfills to be sent as leachate to sewage treatment plants and discharged to public waters. Fracking waste contains high levels of radionuclides known as TENORM which are water soluble and end up in the landfill leachate, but are unregulated and cannot be treated or removed by sewage plants. Source


VIDEO: Shale Gas & Oil Radioactive Wastes from the Marcellus and Utica Shales:
What are they, how are they managed, and should we be concerned? Julie Weatherington-Rice, PhD, CPG, CPSS Bennett & Williams Environmental Consultants Inc. Adjunct Professor Ohio State University Food, Ag & Bio Eng.

My first real heads-up on the radioactivity in Marcellus Shale came nearly 9-years ago, while reading a story by Ian Urbina in The New York Times:

Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers
February 26, 2011 – With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself. The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle. Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law. Source

That New York Times story from 2011 even had a ‘local flavor’ with USGS (US Geological Survey) research data from two shale gas wells in a Washington County, Pa public park:

Flowback & Produced Water (Brine) from Cross Creek County Park well 6H
PA DEP Permit #125-22830

USGS Charts: Date of Samples: 4-9-2009 & 6-29-2009
Radium 226 in Brine (pCi/L) 951
Radium 226 in Brine (pCi/L) 1,280

Radium 228 in Brine (pCi/L) 703
Radium 228 in Brine (pCi/L) 1,110

Total Radium in Brine (pCi/L) 1,654
Total Radium in Brine (pCi/L) 2,390

TDS (mg/L) 157,000
TDS (mg/L) 200,000

Uranium 238 in Brine (pCi/L) 90
Benzene 880 ppb (For comparison’s sake, the Federal drinking water limit is 5 pC/iL)

Where was all this ‘hot’ brine disposed of?

According to a PA DEP Waste Report, the largest quantity of this highly radioactive brine went to an unlisted location:

Well – Source – Quantity – Disposal Location

6H – BRINE – 4008 – NOT LISTED

The sampling report below, dated 4-21-2009 from the West Virginia DEP, indicates that at least some of that “NOT LISTED” brine went to Liquid Assets Disposal (LAD) in Wheeling, WV and showed these test results:

Chart: Years later when we learned of the April 21, 2009 testing done by the WV DEP on brine entering Liquid Assets Disposal in Wheeling, WV (photo below) for final disposal into a tributary of the Ohio River. Above is an excerpt from testing done on brine from Cross Creek County Park.

Well pads inside Cross Creek County Park with wells 6H and 8H mentioned in these documents.

Permitting through the Pa DEP allowed burial of drilling waste from these two wells, even though the March 10, 2003 gas lease for the public park clearly stated: “All trash, rubbish, or waste materials from each drilling site shall be removed and disposed of in a properly licensed solid waste site. All pits shall be filled with earth and developed per County specifications at Lessee’s expense upon completion of each well.”
Washington County Commissioners were presented with detailed information on this legacy situation, which they appear to have totally ignored in the ensuing years.

This photo, from another well site in Washington County, provides a more recent look at what a similar pit looks like during production activities. Similar red-colored, enclosed roll-off containers have been used for especially ‘hot’ radioactive waste, sometimes requiring disposal out-of-state, at sites like the one in Clive, Utah, where radioactive waste from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan has been disposed of.
One or more Marcellus Shale wells in Cross Creek County Park had excess liquids removed before a solidifier was added, then the plastic liner was folded over and the plastic-wrapped waste was covered with at least 18-inches of soil. The moniker for that type of buried waste has become “TOXIC TEABAG.” Below are images of two different slush pits being closed… how does that large excavator avoid puncturing the plastic liner??

Information on Radium from the US EPA, as it appeared on their website years ago:

Radium forms when isotopes of uranium or thorium decay in the environment. Most radium (radium-226) originates from the decay of the plentiful uranium-238. Radium is a naturally radioactive, silvery-white metal when freshly cut. It blackens on exposure to air.
The various isotopes of radium originate from the radioactive decay of uranium or thorium. Radium-226 is found in the uranium-238 decay series, and radium-228 and -224 are found in the thorium-232 decay series.
Radium-226, the most common isotope, is an alpha emitter, with accompanying gamma radiation, and has a half-life of about 1600 years. Radium-228, is principally a beta emitter and has a half-life of 5.76 years. Radium-224, an alpha emitter, has a half life of 3.66 days. Radium decays to form isotopes of the radioactive gas radon. Source

EPA – Radiation Protection
More from Public Herald on how these radioactive toxins are reaching our waterways:

”Is this real? Is radioactive waste flowing into our waterways? Yes. As Public Herald reported, not only is this a reality for at least 15 sewage facilities in Pennsylvania.” Interactive map source

PUBLIC HERALD: “Each landfill DEP tested in the study who accepted TENORM from fracking detected radiation in their leachate. In one location Radium-226 was measured in leachate at 378 pCi/L — the safe drinking water level set by the EPA is 5pCi/L. With a half-life of 1600 years, the legacy of radium from fracking will create exposure pathways for centuries in public water sediment if treated by sewage plants.” (Click for full document)

Drill cuttings are often hauled on tri-axle trucks in “roll-offs” similar to these at a western Pennsylvania landfill.

Tri-axle truck hauling a roll-off container on Interstate 79 near Washington, Pennsylvania.

South Hills Landfill near Pittsburgh, Pa with rows of roll-off containers and a mountain of black-colored material (which is likely Marcellus Shale waste) that can be used by landfills to cover municipal garbage, making a ‘layer cake’ which then becomes like a ‘toxic teabag’.


In summary, and as well illustrated by multiple Public Herald reports, millions of tons of this radioactive waste ends up in our local landfills. Rainwater flowing through this drilling waste becomes leachate that’s piped to public sewage plants (POTW), that are often ill-equipped to properly process it before it is discharged into waterways, like the Monongahela River. (See “Belle Vernon sewage plant to stop accepting contaminated landfill runoff” newspaper story)

Crowd gathers for the Pittsburgh Polar Bear Plunge into the Monongahela River on New Years Day.

It’s one thing to take a quick dip in the Mon River on New Year’s Day, but what about bathing in that same water, and drinking it, year-round? Since Radium 226 is water soluble and has a half life of 1600 years, the long term public health risks are quite real, risks that can affect scores of future generations.


Fracking Is Elevating Levels of Radioactivity Downwind
Researchers found that sites that had 100 fracking wells within 19 km upwind, tended to have radiation levels about 7% above normal background levels. That alone “may cause adverse health outcomes in nearby communities,” the study says, but as the researchers note, some places in the Northeast are 19 km downwind of over 500 fracking sites. The highest radioactivity levels they observed were near the Marcellus and Utica shale fields in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where air particle radioactivity was 40% higher than normal background levels. [FULL STUDY]

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