Two Tales of Radioactivity

There’s a disagreement brewing about whether or not there are radioactive materials in the Marcellus Shale wastewater. On February 26, 2011, Ian Urbina’s New York Times article reported:

Of more than 179 wells producing wastewater with high levels of radiation, at least 116 reported levels of radium or other radioactive materials 100 times as high as the levels set by federal drinking-water standards. At least 15 wells produced wastewater carrying more than 1,000 times the amount of radioactive elements considered acceptable.

Gross Alpha Particles. This map is based on the Pennsylvania wells which were reported to have high levels of radiation by the New York Times on February 26, 2011.  Please click the “i” icon and then one of the wells above for more information.  Please click the gray compass rose and double carat (^) to hide those menus.

On March 7, 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued a statement that would appear to contradict the New York Times data.  According to Acting DEP Secretary Michael Krancer, the situation is as follows:

We deal in facts based on sound science. Here are the facts: all samples were at or below background levels of radioactivity; and all samples showed levels below the federal drinking water standard for Radium 226 and 228.

Can Both Claims Be True?

Of the apparent discrepancy, the Marcellus Drilling News had this blunt proclamation:

It seems that The New York Times’ contention that Pennsylvania is poisoning waterways with radioactivity from Marcellus Shale wastewater was fiction and not science, as is now proven by test results from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

But sound-byte media wars aside, there isn’t necessarily any discrepancy at all. As is usually the case, the devil is in the details.

First of all, it is important to understand that the two organizations are referencing entirely different datasets. More to the point, while the New York Times data is about the produced water itself, the DEP report tested river water. What’s more, in a follow-up article on March 7th, Mr. Urbina wrote:

The Times found that samples taken by the state in the Monongahela River — a source of drinking water for parts of Pittsburgh — came from a point upstream from the two sewage treatment plants on that river. The state has said those plants are still accepting significant quantities of drilling waste.

Because that sampling site is upstream, the discharges from those two plants are not captured by the state’s monitoring plans.

With this perspective, the Marcellus Drilling News’ harsh words come across as misguided. While the DEP statement seems to have been carefully worded to give the illusion of countering the claims raised by Mr. Urbina’s article, in fact, it does no such thing.

CHEC’s Perspective

In Mr. Urbina’s March 7th article, Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC)(1) Director Conrad Volz, DrPH, MPH said:

As long as we are going to allow oil and gas wastewater to enter these streams, there needs to be monitoring weekly at least for a whole host of contaminants, including radium, barium, strontium.

According to Mr. Urbina’s March 7th Times article, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seems to agree with this cautionary approach, requiring tests for radioactivity at water intake plants, as well as a call to check for compliance at the facilities that are handling the wastewater.

This seems like a prudent approach. If the DEP has legitimate issues with the February 26th New York Times data, it was not effectively countered by their March 7th statement. The best way to settle this dispute is through targeted data collection, which in this case means setting up an effective water quality testing strategy.

And isn’t that the sort of work that the Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Protection Agency should be doing anyway?

  1. CHEC manages the content for FracTracker, including this site,, and
5 replies
  1. Helen
    Helen says:

    >Does anyone check the open frack pits for radioactivity, not to mention the content of the air around them as the water and gases evaporate? I've heard of a number of people who have become ill living near one of these hugh "pits".

  2. Stony
    Stony says:

    >Everybody is missing the point here. The treatment plants are supposed to meet drinking water standards for their outflow or discharge! THAT is where it should be measured for compliance! Not some point miles downstream! AT the discharge of the treatment plants. They need to monitor what the treatment plants are putting into the water, not how diluted it becomes miles away.

  3. dhmeiser
    dhmeiser says:

    >As an analytical chemist I have reviewed the data reported by the PA DEP. The data was sent to me by Katy Gresh at the PA DEP, The quantity and the quality of the data is inadequate and lacks scientific credibility: Sampling of 3 times or less at a location, most locations measured only once, no baseline comparison, no flow readings… I wonder if this data was even reviewed for proper sampling protocols and procedures! The PA-DEP data is inadequate and considerably lacking!

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