The revelation that natural gas drilling companies are dumping radioactive wastewater into our rivers virtually unregulated was shocking enough, but now the New York Times is reporting that radioactive sludge is being used for fertilizer on our nation’s farms. You heard right: radioactive fertilizer – a direct line to the food chain.
Has the whole world gone stark raving mad? Well, if not the whole world, at least the part that handles U.S. environmental regulation.
The news that radioactive material is being used for fertilizer on the farms that produce our vegetables and milk (among other food products) should make even the most permissive pro-industry segments of the American public exceedingly uncomfortable. Radiation outside the food chain – in rivers, for example – is one level of risk, but radiation contamination in the food chain is a much more serious and insidious threat to public health.
This latest bombshell comes from NYT reporter Ian Urbina, who focuses on Pennsylvania environmental regulators in his most recent story on the fracking industry, saying they are “…calling for waste treatment plants and drinking water facilities to increase testing for radioactive pollutant and other contaminants, to see whether they are ending up in rivers because of the growth of natural gas drilling in the state.”
Again, radioactive material in our rivers is a huge concern that needs to be addressed by both lawmakers and regulators, however, another even more urgent issue is that sludge from waste water treatment plants is being used for fertilizer in a kind of “land farming” process run amok (or, I should say, further amok). Land farming is one way industry tries to dispose of radioactive waste – not by removing it but by incorporating it into surface soil and tilling it to aerate the mixture. Unfortunately, the process removes neither the radiation nor the threat, it simply dilutes the density of the pollutants. And radium 226 – one of the radioactive isotopes contained in fracking wastewater – has a half-life of more than 1,600 years, so the risk remains with us across generations.
One very real health threat is bio-accumulation, where you begin with radiation in soil that can be absorbed by grasses that are then consumed by farm animals (like cattle) that are in turn consumed by humans. Cows’ milk is immediately and closely monitored when radiation has been detected in an area, because the cows eat the contaminated grass and the radiation shows up (usually very quickly) in the milk they produce. Just like grasses, vegetables can become contaminated when grown in soil containing radioactive material, which presents another direct line to human ingestion.
Another point that needs to be considered is that low-level radiation, which can be blocked by our skin, can wreak havoc if it gets inside our bodies. Both government and industry officials often lump internal and external exposures together, treating them in much the same way as far as health risks go. In reality, internal exposure, even at low levels, is extremely dangerous while low-level external exposure – like x-rays and CT scans – is less of a concern. For more than 20 years, I have been suing the oil and gas industry for damages associated with radioactive waste, and I can assure you that ingested (internal) radiation poses a grave health risk at virtually any level. There is no safe limit for internal exposure. You won’t hear this from official sources, but the inhalation of one particle of plutonium or uranium can, and does, cause lung cancer. Devastating, but true.
Under pressure from the EPA – pressure coming in the wake of Mr. Urbina’s reporting – Pennsylvania regulators say they sent letters requiring new testing to 14 public water authorities while contacting another 25 wastewater plants, “…requesting that those with older permits ‘voluntarily’ begin testing for radium, uranium and other pollutants.”
Voluntary testing? Lawmakers and regulators alike need to get it through their heads that the “honor system” does not work when it comes to industry pollution. When we’ve got state regulators “requesting” voluntary testing from waste water plants, something is very wrong with our regulatory policy.
But here’s the real kicker, according to the Times report:
…[when] wastewater is sent through these plants, some of the heavier contaminants settle out during the treatment process. Radioactive elements like radium may also settle and concentrate in the sludge, which is sometimes sold by treatment plants for use as fertilizer… E.P.A. officials said they were concerned that the state had not forbidden treatment plants to distribute the sludge for such purposes. Asked by E.P.A. officials about this issue, Pennsylvania regulators said they planned to address it in a new guideline.
That may sound like the state is going to address the issue, but I wouldn’t count on it. A “guideline” amounts to advice that can be easily ignored. An official from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection admits as much, telling the NYT that “it’s not really a requirement, but it’s in guidance.”
Yet the very same state official, in the very same story, is quoted as saying that the reason for the new guidance on biosolids is that “we don’t have a good handle on the radiological concerns right now, and in any case we don’t want people land-applying (or land farming) biosolids that may be contaminated to any significant level by Radium 226-228 or other emitters.”
Gee, you think? If you want to do away with the threat of radioactive contamination, you need far more than “guidance.” You need consistent government oversight and rigorous mandatory testing of waste. And that’s going to take a genuine attitude adjustment – a change in culture – on the part of lawmakers and regulators, both at the state and federal level. It will take political backbone to stand up to the power and influence of the oil and gas lobby, but with continued media coverage exposing the risks tied to fracking and a groundswell of public opposition to lax regulation, we just might bring about real change.
Read Mr. Urbina’s explosive NYT coverage here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/08/science/earth/08water.html?_r=1&sq=Ian%20natural%20gas&st=nyt&scp=1&pagewanted=print
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