The salty, radioactive gunk that Big Fracking doesn’t want you to know about


The big oil companies love to portray the rise of fracking as a great American success story — using 21st Century technology and know-how to locate and extract pockets of cheap energy that were thought to be unreachable, reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil and lowering your energy cost. But Big Oil doesn’t want you to know the sausage-making, as it were, that goes into pulling those resources out of the deep earth.

That’s because the only way to pull that oil and natural gas from the deep earth is to bring up the gunk that’s down there with it — and when I use the word “gunk” I’m being very polite. Americans are just learning what Big Oil didn’t want you to know — that there is also a boom in radioactive waste and in salty water that is highly destructive for our surface environment.

In Pennsylvania and other neighboring states that sit atop the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation, the fracking boom has been going on for about six years, yet officials seem to just now be wrapping their arms around the extent of the problem:

States in and around the fracking boom are trying to figure out what to do about all this naturally radioactive waste from drilling. Pennsylvania is conducting a study of radiation in the Marcellus Shale. West Virginia passed a law to segregate drill cuttings within landfills. New York State has a moratorium on fracking, but it accepts radioactive drilling waste from nearby Pennsylvania — and that has touched off an intense debate. 

Larry Shilling, vice-president of Casella Waste Systems, which operates the Chemung County landfill, says the site has never accepted a load of cuttings that exceeded acceptable levels of radiation. In fact, he wants New York State regulators to allow the company to accept even more cuttings from Pennsylvania.

But not everyone is convinced this landfill is taking sufficient precautions. Gary Abraham, an environmental lawyer in Western New York who is working to block Casella from expanding its landfills, says there’s so much radiation in the deep shale rocks that it must inevitability be entering landfills.

He points to radioactivity readings taken by New York State regulators of the salty water found in the Marcellus Shale. This water, which comes up during and after fracking, is called brine. “The radioactivity of the brine is as high as 15,000 picocuries per liter,” Abraham says. “The background radiation at the surface of the earth in New York is about 1 picocurie per liter.”

Let me just state that again: This brine is 15,000 times more radioactive than normal background radiation — and frackers are pulling up untold hundreds of millions of gallons of this, alongside the natural gas that they’re sending to market. And here’s the worst part: This radium-226 has a half-life of about 5,000 years, so that once we bring this salty brine to the surface, the bad effects are sticking around.

That poses some real risk when it’s disposed of properly — if there really is a proper way to dispose of such wastes — but what happens when there is an accident? This week, folks in North Dakota — the current epicenter of energy production in America — are finding that out, and the answer is not very pretty:

A pipeline has leaked 1 million gallons of oil drilling saltwater into the ground at a North Dakota Indian reservation, and some of the byproduct ended up in a bay that feeds the lake that provides the reservation’s drinking water, company and tribal officials said.

Cleanup at the Fort Berthold reservation site continued Thursday, two days after the leak was discovered. It was expected to last for weeks, said Miranda Jones, the vice president of environmental safety and regulatory at Houston-based Crestwood Midstream Services Inc.

Jones said the leak at the underground pipeline, owned by Crestwood subsidiary Aero Pipeline LLC, likely started over the Fourth of July weekend. The pipeline was not equipped with a system that sends an alert when there is a leak, she said, and the spill was only discovered when the company was going through production loss reports.

“This is something no company wants on their record, and we are working diligently to clean it up,” Jones said.

Perhaps, but the reality is that these types of spills have been increasing rapidly, in tandem with the steep rise in energy production. In 2006, a spill into an environmentally sensitive tributary of the Yellowstone River caused a massive die-off of fish, turtles and plant life. The fact that much of this territory is hallowed Native American ground only compounds the tragedy.

I’ve spent some 25 years as an environmental attorney, and a good chunk of my work has been helping property owners and workers who’ve been poisoned by radioactivity from the oil production process — radioactivity they typically didn’t even know anything about until it was too late. It pains me to see these mistakes repeated — and seemingly on a much larger scale — with the rise of fracking. We should be aware of the risks, and we should be treating these fracking wastes as the highly dangerous, radioactive material that they are. We should not be condemned to repeat our tragic history of pollution by Big Oil and Gas.

For more information about the high levels of radioactivity in Marcellus Shale fracking waste, please read:

To learn more about the massive spill of saltwater in North Dakota, check out:

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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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