Fracking and radioactivity: It’s worse than you think


I built the foundation of my career as an environmental lawyer upon the issue of fighting the radioactivity that results from oil and gas production. It was the end of the 1980s, and workers and pipe-cleaning yard owners in the Gulf Coast oil patch were just learning that the water that’s produced in oil wells is laced with radium-226 and — highly concentrated as it builds up on pipes — can be dangerous to human health and safety.

So we sued the big oil giants like Chevron and ExxonMobil, won some cases or got settlements for my clients — and then waited for government regulators to weigh in with strict new rules. But they didn’t do their part. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency refused to treat radioactive waste from the oil patch as a hazardous substance — kicking the issue back to the states. And the state capitals, chock full of oil lobbyists, did very little. The states that did impose regulations, like Louisiana, don’t really enforce them.

The failure to act has consequences. Because we didn’t do anything about radioactive wastes in the Southern oil patch, we were completely unprepared when fracking arrived in regions of the United States which had had little or no drilling activity for decades, places like Pennsylvania. Indeed, frackers — gas companies that use the controversial tactic of breaking apart shale rock with water to free up the fossil fuels trapped inside — dumped massive amounts of radioactive fluids in local streams or simply took them to sewage plants unequipped to handle them.

This week, a new scientific study blows the lid off the insanity of this practice:

Duke researchers looked at sediment samples collected downstream of the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility in Indiana County, Penn., and found that radium levels were 200 times greater in those samples when compared to those collected upstream of the plant. The plant processes fracking flowback water — highly saline and radioactive fluid that is returned to the surface as part of the fracking process.

Researchers have long been concerned about concentration of bromide, chlorides and other contaminants being discharged from the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility. One researcher, Conrad Volz, former director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh, testified before the U.S. Senate in 2011 about the high level of contaminants in Josephine’s effluent.

“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 and water quality.

Radioactivity levels were found to be elevated in sediment near the outflow from the plant, and they were high enough that only a licensed radioactive disposal facility is qualified to accept them, said co-author Robert B. Jackson, Duke professor of environmental science. Radioactivity has accumulated in the river sediments and exceeds thresholds for safe disposal of radioactive waste, he said.

Just as with the radioactive contamination that we found in the oil patch down South, the way that this radium-laced produced water is handled in Pennsylvania has a tendency to concentrate the pollution and thus make the impact much worse. The problem is that the fracking process creates a whopping 2 billion gallons of wastewater every day. ““They produce more wastewater than hydrocarbons. That’s the broader implication of this study,” said the researcher, Jackson. “We have to do something with this wastewater.”

Of course, the huge amount of fracking wastewater creates other environmental problems, such as increased earthquakes near locations where the wastes are injected deep underground. Jackson notes in the article that these problems are a direct consequence of America’s — and the world’s — addiction to oil, and I could not agree with him more. Part of the problem is just lack of good information. The public needs to know this massive dumping of radioactivity is taking place — and then tell their elected officials to do something about it.

To read more about the radioactive contamination at a Pennsylvania treatment plant from Climate Central, go to:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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