Marcellus Drilling Brings Radiation Exposures, May Harm Drinking Water

by Tony Rutherford HuntingtonNews.Net Reporter
Marcellus Drilling Brings Radiation Exposures, May Harm Drinking Water

A few weeks ago West Virginia officials expressed disappointment that a proposed Marcellus cracker gas  drilling operation would go near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and not to West Virginia. The company wanted land already in use as a racing facility in Chester, WV. However, inspection of a NY TIMES report which contains extensive EPA documentation raised concerns in 2009 and 2010 that such drilling could expose residents to radioactive matter in drinking water.

The EPA document (National Enforcement & Compliance Strategy Information Background for Energy Extraction FY 2010 Draft") said that "Region III states impacted are those in which Marcellus Shale formation is present: most of Pennsylvania and West Virginia...Hydraulic fracturing is also used for coal  bed methane extraction, a long existing activity in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and possibly Maryland. "Each frac operation requires 3-5 million gallons of frac water, most of which returns to the surface containing dissolved minerals."  


The study expressed greatest concerns for Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), radionuclides and frac additive chemicals. Stating that "characterizations of radionuclides and frac additives is incomplete," the report found "assimilative capacity in many Region 3 surface wells is insufficient for discharge of high TDS loads and the secondary MCL  for TDS for drinking water systems have been exceeded on occasion in the Monongahela River basin."


A November 9, 2009 memorandum from Nidal Azzam , senior health physicist, scientist DEPP, Radiation and Indoor Air Brance of the US EPA Region II, stresses that "EPA does not regulate the gas industry and we can't impose regulatory requirements." However, commenting upon the September 2009, Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DSGEIS) on Oil, Gas and Solution Mine Regulatory Programs, Azzam wrote that "radionuclide concentrations represent elevated radionuclide concentrations that need to be handled, managed and disposed of appropriately to avoid unnecessary exposure to workers, the public and the environment." Under General Comments, Azzam  stated that elevated levels of uranium "need to take into consideration the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Uranium Mill Trailling Standard... to ensure the safety of public health and the environment." 


Azzam noted that concentration levels of uranium in the document were "in terms of parts per million (ppm) instead of pico-Curie per gram (pCi/g) or pico-curie per liter (pCi/L). Based on past experience the ppm could significantly  underestimate the uranium concentration..." Considering the decades long battles of Cold War atomic plant workers for compensation from radiation exposure at Atomic Energy Commission facilities (i.e. Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant; Huntington Pilot Plant), the physicist opined that oil and gas workers may be exposed to "unacceptable health risk via external exposure, inhalation of radon and thoron decay products, and to some extinct inadvertent ingestion. Although most states have yet to formally classified oil and gas drill rig personnel as OCCUPATIONAL RADIATION WORKERS, at least health and safety measures should be considered to educate the personel about radiation exposure and reduce their exposure to as low as reasonably achievable.


The pipe scale and filter media could be the major sources of radiation exposure and need to be handled and disposed of appropriately." INCREASED CANCER DISK According to the report from the NY TIMES: "This study was provided  by an E.P.A. official who said it shows that dilution of drilling waste does not always succeed in eliminating the health risks posed by that waste. The study is marked confidential and was conducted on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute in 1990. It found a potential increased risk of cancer among people who often eat fish from waters where drilling waste is discharged. The study is relevant because state regulators in Pennsylvania have said that dilution is effectively removing the risks posed by drilling waste that is discharged into rivers.


Importantly, this study found an increased risk of cancer when drilling waste was dumped into a larger body of water than Pennsylvania rivers. Furthermore, state records indicate that the radium levels found in Pennsylvania wastewater are much higher than those used in this study. Radium, for example, was found in Pennsylvania at levels over 18 times the number used in the this study. It should be noted, however, that this study did not detail actual cases of increased cancer. Rather, it modeled potential increases in cancer rates as a result of radium-laced drilling waste being discharged into large waterways." An email exchange revealed that that dillution rates had been based on "open water" discharges , such as in the Gulf of Mexico, not a river, where rates likely would not be as high. Of concern, bioaccumulation factors for freshwater fish which the author stated "I do not know" if these factors would be similar or whether freshwater fishermen "eat as much fish caught over their lifetime."


 Scott G. Mandirola, acting director, WV Department of Environmental Protection, wrote on July 23, 2009 to Walter Goodwin , Superintendent, Clarksburg Sanitary Board, that "The US EPA and WV DEP discourages Publically Owned Treatment Works (POTW's) from accepting wastewater from oil and gas operations such as coal bed methane gas and marcellus shale wastewaters because these watstewaters essentially pass through sewage treatment plants and can cause inhibition and interference with treatment plant operations." Mandirola wrote that such wastewaters contain "high levels of chloride, dissolved solid, sulfate and other pollutants.

POTW's provide little or no treatment of these pollutants and could potentially lead to water quality issues in the receiving stream. The Clarksburg Sanitary Board discharges to the Monongahelia River basin which flows into the State of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has experienced exceedances of water quality standards with respect to total dissolved solids and sulfate in the Monongahelia River." The letter explains that total dissolved solids such as arsenic, titanium, cobalt, nickel, lead, chromium , cyanide, mercury , beryllium, stronium-90, gross alpha radiation, gross beta radiation, radium 226 and radium 228 are among the ingreadants that have been found in wastewater. He also cautioned about a fire or explosion hazard from organic polutants .


When the Times inquired about the results, Bill Bush, a spokesman for the American Petroluem Institute, said, “We have no reason to challenge what’s in the study, but to confirm it’s accurate would require someone with expertise to go over it and thoroughly digest what it says in light of any additional related research done over the past 20 years.”

A risk  expert on human health and ecological risk analysis said that the study  clearly shows that the drilling waste is not sufficiently diluted in some cases. As a result, the radioactivity levels left behind in receiving waters come close to reaching the threshold at which the E.P.A., under federal Superfund rules, requires a cleanup, the risk expert said.  

You can examine selected PDF's from the reports, which we have provided.

The full investigation can be accessed here:

A blog on the Times investigation is here:

 More on the process at: