Fracking boom already well underway, now Pa. decides to check for lethal radiation


When it comes to fracking — the popular term for the natural-gas drilling technique also known as hydraulic fracturing — the approach has been to shoot first and ask questions later , even if thousands of innocent civilians are caught in the line of fire. Nobody in America outside of a small circle of oil- and gas-men and some engineers had even heard of fracking in the mid-2000s when Dick Cheney convinced Congress to exempt the process from most common-sense regulations. Within a couple of years, fast-talking landmen gobbled up thousands of acres of leases of gas-rich lands in states like Pennsylvania, where there had been minimal drilling since the earliest oil rushes of the late 19th Century.

It is only now — so deep into the fracking boom that drillers in some Pennsylvania counties are already closing up shop and moving on to new finds of shale gas — that public pressure is forcing government to get the information it should have gathered seven or eight years ago. The Marcellus Shale formation that sits under Pennsylvania and some of its neighboring states has been the epicenter of this surge in natural gas exploration, yet somehow little attention has been paid to the fact that this mineral formation is highly radioactive.

Incredibly, officials in the Keystone State never properly tested for radioactivity — not in the tens of millions of gallons of wastewater that have been pulled up from the ground and then dumped into sewage treatment plants and key rivers that supply drinking water, not in the truckloads of solid drill cuttings, not in the miles of pipe where historically some of the highest levels of radiation can be found.

Until this year:

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection plans to study levels of naturally occurring radioactivity in materials associated with oil and gas drilling. The announcement comes  almost two years after a series of reports in the New York Times revealed radioactive waste water from gas drilling was discharged into Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams. The industry has since stopped the practice, but the DEP says it plans to analyze radioactivity in frack flowback water, drill cuttings, drill mud, and the levels in equipment such as pipes, well casings storage tanks, treatment systems and trucks.

 “This administration is undertaking what will be the most comprehensive study of its kind anywhere, and Gov. Corbett has directed us to do so in order to be proactive for the future and to continue Pennsylvania’s leadership in responsible development of domestic natural gas resources,” DEP Secretary Mike Krancer said through a press release. “This thorough and rigorous study, which will focus on conditions here in Pennsylvania, is further demonstration that states are best suited to responsibly oversee the natural gas exploration and production activities taking place in our respective borders.

It may be a little late, as evidenced by this story that broke just late last week:

A truck carrying drill cuttings from a hydraulic fracturing pad in the Marcellus Shale was rejected by a Pennsylvania landfill Friday after it set off a radiation alarm, according to published reports. The truck was emitting gamma radiation from radium 226 at almost ten times the level permitted at the landfill.

The MAX Environmental Technologies truck was first quarantined at the landfill, which is operated by MAX, and then sent back to the fracking pad—Rice Energy‘s Thunder II pad in Greene County—to be redirected to a site that can accept higher levels of radiation.

But the radioactivity problems in Pennsylvania run much deeper than people realize. This weekend, I received the spring edition of a report called the RWMA Newsletter from Marvin Resnikoff, Ph.D., a leading international authority on radioactive waste with whom I have consulted in the past. The entire issue is devoted to the problem with radioactivity in the Marcellus Shale fracking zone, and some of the findings are highly disturbing. Here are some excerpts, on topics such as wastewater:

 The process of hydro-fracking, used to obtain natural gas from the Marcellus shale, requires a large quantity of water to complete the process- over 3 millions gallons of water per treatment to be exact. Drilling fluid is used to remove the rock cuttings from horizontal wells in the Marcellus shale formations and to transport the drill cuttings to the well surface. This water is recovered from the well, along with added liquids and chemicals throughout the fracking process and any produced formation brines from the drilled well. New York DEC sampled flowback water from vertical Marcellus shale wells and found that the liquid contained radioactive concentrations as high as 267 times the limit for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit for drinking water. Brine  from horizontal drilling, as being done throughout Pennsylvania, will be much more radioactive, quoted by New York DEC as high as 15,000 pCi/L.


The recovered solid rock cuttings from drilled wells, suspended in a mixture of drilling fluid and formation water with elevated radionuclide content, are placed on shale shakers and dewatered before disposal into a landfill. However, not all of the liquid waste in which the drill cuttings are suspended will be removed. Drill cuttings and other materials associated with oil and gas have triggered radiation monitors at landfills (PA DEP Press Release 2013). Radium-226 has a half life of 1600 years and, if deposited in a landfill (or any other general area due to incorrect wastewater treatment), will remain there and eventually leach out essentially forever ((Resnikoff et al. 2010)).  Occasionally, trucks carrying rock cuttings have triggered radiation detection devices, portal monitors, and been turned away. In mid April, a truck loaded with Marcellus shale drill cuttings that triggered a radiation alarm at a hazardous waste landfill in South Huntingdon, Pennsylvania was ordered back to a Greene County drilling site (Peirce 2013). However, where these cuttings then end up is often undocumented and unclear. This is an issue that puts people at a risk for ingestion and inhalation of carcinogenic NORM due to exposure in the work place, through crops grown on polluted soils, through livestock raised on contaminated land and just general exposure through everyday activities with potentially un-monitored radiation in an area.


Another significant risk to the public of radioactive exposure from Marcellus shale is that of radon exposure in homes. This hazard has the potential for large numbers of lung cancer among natural gas customers. Radon is present in natural gas from Marcellus shale at much higher concentrations than natural gas from wells in other regions of the country such as Louisiana and Texas (Resnikoff 2012). This is because Marcellus shale is much closer to end users than gas from Louisiana and Texas, and radon has less time to decay as it’s brought into metropolitan areas in New York and Pennsylvania. Radon has a half-life of only 3.8 days. Marcellus shale is also more radioactive than other gas formations. Being an inert gas, radon will not be destroyed when natural gas is burned in a kitchen stove, thus exposing people in the home to radon via inhalation. These factors will lead to increased cases of lung cancer with customers who are using the natural gas from Marcellus shale drilling wells. Radon from the Marcellus shale formation needs to be independently measured at the wellhead; how the natural gas is handled at processing plants and in storage must be thoroughly examined. 

I strongly urge anyone who closely follows the fracking issue to read the Resnikoff report in its entirety. It covers a lot of ground, including the likelihood that the pipe that’s being used in the Marcellus drilling process is highly contaminated with radioactive scale. This is an issue that I follow very closely; as regular readers of this site know, my very first significant case as a trial lawyer, back in the early 1990s, was a lawsuit against Chevron for pipe from the oil patch in Mississippi that was so radioactive that it ruined the business of the brothers who ran a pipe-cleaning firm and sickened the people who worked for them. In the years that followed, I pursued a number of cases that involved pollution from oil and gas production and naturally occurring radioactive material — known as NORM. I saw how undetected radioactivity has sapped the strength and ruined the health of oil-and-gas workers — so I fear for the newly exposed Pennsylvanians.

In his newsletter, Resnikoff expresses concerns — which I share — whether the Pittsburgh testing firm hired by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection agency will be fair and impartial, given the close ties between the industry and the current administration. He also notes that there’s a long latency period for most illnesses called by radiation, and so he calls on the state to continue to study for ailments like leukemia over a longer time frame. That is just tragic — but when you shoot first and ask questions later, it takes a long time to clean up the damage.

To read the RWMA Newsletter on radioactivity and the Marcellus Shale in its entirety, please go to:

Check out the initial news reports about the Pennsylvania radiation study at:

To learn more about the recent discovery of high levels of radioactivity in a truck containing drilling waste from Pennsylvania, please read:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

Add comment

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

Follow Us

© Stuart H Smith, LLC
Share This