Pennsylvania Calls for More Water Tests


Pennsylvania environmental regulators said Wednesday that they were calling for waste treatment plants and drinking water facilities to increase testing for radioactive pollutants and other contaminants, to see whether they are ending up in rivers because of the growth of natural gas drilling in the state.

The move follows a March 7 letter that the federal Environmental Protection Agency sent to the state, instructing it to perform testing for radioactivity within 30 days and to review the permits of state treatment plants handling the wastewater.

“Over the past three years, we have taken the actions necessary to protect the environment and public health without stifling the growth of the natural gas industry,” said Michael Krancer, acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

He added that his office had sent letters requiring new testing to 14 public water authorities. It also contacted 25 wastewater plants, requesting that those with older permits “voluntarily” begin testing for radium, uranium and other pollutants.

The letters from federal and state regulators follow reports in The New York Times about gas industry wastewater with high levels of radioactivity being discharged into rivers and streams by sewage treatment plants that were not designed to remove radioactive materials.

The state’s letter also comes almost a month after a lengthy conference call among E.P.A. officials and state regulators, during which they discussed how to improve regulation of natural gas industry wastewater in Pennsylvania.

During the call, federal regulators raised concerns about sludge, often called biosolids, from waste treatment plants receiving drilling wastewater.

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.

“It’s not really a requirement, but it’s in guidance,” said Ron Furlan, an official from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, according to a transcript of the March 15 conference call.

Mr. Furlan added 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 biosolids that may be contaminated to any significant level by Radium 226-228 or other emitters.”

During the conference call, E.P.A. officials said they had been informed that the Johnstown Plant in western Pennsylvania was still receiving biosolids and distributing them to be spread on fields.

“I don’t know for a fact,” Mr. Furlan said, “but I’m sure that there are some P.O.T.W.’s that are accepting brine natural gas wastewater and are still land applying, but we are still trying to stop that basically.” P.O.T.W.’s refers to publicly owned treatment works, or sewage treatment plants.

A message seeking comment from officials who oversee the Johnstown plant was not responded to. On its Web site, the plant says that it “produces 20,000 tons of lime-stabilized biosolids per year.”

Documents reviewed by The Times in February indicate that the Johnstown plant has accepted wastewater with levels of alpha radioactivity roughly 2,157 times higher than the drinking water standard.

In an interview last December, an official from the Johnstown, Pa., plant said his plant usually accepted 50,00 to 100,000 gallons of drilling wastewater per day.

In Pennsylvania, waste treatment plant operators have to test sludge for a range of contaminants before they can distribute it to be used for fertilizer. The list of contaminants does not include radium, according to a 1999 report by Pennsylvania State University. State officials did not respond to questions about whether these standards had been updated.

During the conference call, E.P.A. officials pushed state regulators to consider re-evaluating all of the permits at wastewater treatment plants that are accepting drilling waste and adding stricter standards for testing of radionuclides and other contaminants.

“It’s basically out of the question,” Mr. Furlan said, rejecting the idea and explaining that “it’s too resource intensive” and that industry would push back too strongly.

Mr. Furlan also said that the real threat of radionuclides from drilling wastewater being sent through sewage treatment plants was that it would settle in the sediment at the bottom of rivers.

The letters sent this week by Pennsylvania regulators made no mention of any plans to test river sediment or to restrict applications on land of sludge from these waste treatment plants that are accepting drilling waste.

“There is no sediment testing as far as I know,” Mr. Furlan said when asked by E.P.A officials. “But if you were really looking for radionuclides, that’s the first place I would look.”

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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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