Radium Watersheds a Risk
By Greg Pace – Columbus Community Bill of Rights, and Julie Weatherington-Rice – Environmental Consultant
Most Ohio residents are unaware of the frack fluid deep underground injection occurring north of Columbus, underneath the region’s source water protection watersheds (Figure 1).
Materials injected are liquids that have as much as ten times the salt concentration of sea-water. Mixed with this “brine” solution is a combination from hundreds of chemicals that are used in different stages of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, the process used to extract natural gas, petroleum, and hydrocarbon liquids used to make industrial materials such as plastics. BTEX compounds including benzene are always present in the wastewater, along with formaldehyde, bromides, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), and arsenic, with many other carcinogenic and otherwise highly-toxic substances.
Radioactivity of Shale Gas Wastewater
One of the biggest questions in this mix of toxic disposal is how much radioactive content exists. Radium-226 is most worrisome, as it has a very long half-life (1,600 years). It is water-soluble and, once it enters the human body, seeks to find a home in our bones where it will emit its cell-formation-destabilizing effects for the remainder of our lifetime. This radionuclide is known to cause leukemia, bone cancers, blood disorders, and other diseases.
The state of Ohio does not monitor the content of materials that are injected into our Class II injection wells deep in the ground. This oil and gas waste can come from anywhere, including Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale, which is the most highly-radioactive geology of all the shale plays in the country. Radium-226 readings as high as 15,000 pico-curies per liter have been read in Marcellus shale brines. The EPA drinking water limit for radium-226 is 5 pico-curies per liter, which puts the Marcellus reading at 3,000 times higher than the drinking water limit.
Exposure through drinking water is a pathway to human disease from radium-226. Once oil and gas waste is disposed of underground in a sandstone or limestone layer, the fluids are subject to down-gradient movement, wicking through capillary action, and seepage over time. This means that the highly radioactive wastewater could eventually end up in our underground drinking water sources, creating radium watersheds. This practice is putting our watersheds at risk from radioactive contamination for hundreds of years, at least.
Can injected fluids migrate?
Depending on whether you confer with a geologist who works with the oil and gas industry, or from an independent geologist, you will get a different opinion on the likelihood of such a pollution event occurring. Industry geologists mostly claim that deep injection leaves very low risk of water contamination because it will not migrate from the planned area of injection. On the other hand, independent geologists will tell you that it is not a matter of if the liquids will migrate, but how and when. The ability to confirm the geology of the underground area layer of injection “storage” is not exact, therefore accuracy in determining the probability for migration over time is poor.
Figure 2. Ohio Utica Brine Production and Class II Injection Well Disposal
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We do know, however, that all underground systems in Ohio leak – Research by The Ohio State University and the US Geological Survey show that the age of the water in brine formations is far younger than the age of the rock deposits they are found in. See where wastewater is being created and disposed of in Ohio using the dynamic map above (Figure 2).
Spill Risks to Columbus, OH Water
According to area geologist, Dr. Julie Weatherington-Rice, the source for Columbus’s water to the north is mostly from surface water. This water comes from the Delaware and Morrow county watersheds that feed into sources such as the Hoover and Alum Creek reservoirs. The major threat from injection wells to our watershed is from spills, either from trucks or from storage at the injection well sites themselves.
In April 2015, as much as 8,000 gallons of liquid leaked from a malfunctioning pipe in the storage apparatus of an oil/gas waste storage and injection well site in Vienna, OH. This caused a wildlife kill in two ponds (Figure 3), and the spill was not contained until 2/3 mile downstream in a tributary. The firm who owned the facility was found negligent in that they did not install a required containment liner for spills. The incident was discovered by neighboring residents, but apparently employees knew of the leak weeks before. Of note in this incident was that Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the regulatory agency that oversees all oil/gas production activity in Ohio including injection, stated that there was “minimal impact to wildlife.”
In March, 2016, a tanker truck carrying produced waste from a hydraulically fractured well pad overturned outside of the Village of Barnesville, Ohio (Figure 4). The truck spilled 5,000 gallons of liquid waste into a field that led into a tributary, leading the fluids to enter one of the city’s three drinking water supply reservoirs. The water source was shut down for more than two months while regulators determined if water levels were safe for consumption. There was a noted spike in radium-226 levels during water testing immediately after the spill.
Of greatest concern is that, although many millions of gallons of frack waste have been injected into the wells north of Columbus over the past few years, we expect that this activity will increase. For the first time, the United States began exporting its own natural gas in 2016, to regions such as Europe and South America. As the industry consolidates from the depression of oil prices over the past two years and begins to ramp up again, we expect the extraction activity in the Marcellus and especially Utica to increase to levels beyond what we have seen since 2011. The levels of injection will inevitably follow, so that injection wells in Ohio will receive much more than in the past. The probability of spills, underground migration, and human-induced earthquakes may increase steeply, as well.
An Aging Disposal Infrastructure
On our Columbus Community Bill of Rights website, we show pictures of some of the Class II injection wells in Morrow County, most of them converted from legacy production wells. These old wells are located in played out oil/gas fields that may still be producing or have abandoned but not plugged (closed) wells, allowing other routes for injected liquids to migrate into shallow ground water and to the surface. The dilapidated condition of these converted Class II wells makes it hard to believe that they are used to inject millions of gallons of wastewater under high pressure. While many of the wells in the state are as deep as 9,000 feet, all of the injection wells we have seen in Morrow County are only 3,000-4,000 feet deep. This situation puts surface water at greater risk over time, as it is probable that, over the generations, some of the fluids will migrate and wick into the higher subterranean strata.
Figure 5. Ohio Class II Injection Wells by Type
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One well (Power Fishburn unit, photo below) showed signs of poor spill control when we took our October 2015 injection well tour. While we were there, a brine tanker arrived and began pumping their load into the well. The driver took pictures of our license plates while we were there watching him. A year later, there is a whole new structure at the well, including a new storage tower, and an extensively beefed-up spill control berm. Maybe we need to visit all of the facilities when they come by to use them!
Another well (Mosher unit, photo below) which hadn’t been used since 2014 according to available records, showed signs of a spill around the well. The spill control berms look as if they probably had flooded at some point. This well sits on the edge of a large crop field.
Figures 6a and 6b. Photos of Class II injection wells. Click on the images to expand them.
North of Columbus, the city of Delaware’s underground source water is at risk of becoming contaminated from underground migration of disposed wastewater over time, through wicking and seepage effects (as explained earlier in this article). They are also vulnerable to their reservoir being contaminated from surface spill migration through their watershed.
South of Columbus is another threat – drill cuttings from the drilling process have been authorized for disposal at a “remediation” landfill adjacent to the Alum Creek (Figure 7). The bioremediation treatment used is not indicated to solve the problem of removing radionuclides from the materials. This landfill had been remediated under the Ohio EPA twice when it was a toxic drum dump, after toxins were found to have been leaching into the watershed creek. Columbus’s Alum Creek well, as well as Circleville, are at risk of contamination in their drinking water if radionuclides from the cuttings leach into Alum Creek. Again, this is a long-term legacy of risk to their water.
Radiation Regulatory and Monitoring Gaps
Since The Ohio legislature deemed the radioactive content of shale cuttings to be similar to background levels in the 2013 state budget bill, cuttings can be spread around to all licensed landfills in Ohio with absolutely no accountability for the radium and other heavy metal levels in them. Unfortunately, the measuring protocol used in the pilot study for the Columbus facility to demonstrate to Ohio EPA that radium-226 was below EPA drinking water limits has been shown in a University of Iowa study to be unreliable. The inadequate protocol was shown to indicate as little as 1% of the radium levels in shale waste samples tested.
As such, there have been hundreds of incidents where truckloads of cuttings have been turned away at landfills with crude radiation monitors. In 2013 alone, 2 loads were turned away in Ohio landfills, and over 220 were turned away from Pennsylvania landfills.
Ohio has a long way to go before it can be considered a clean energy state. The coal industry polluted significant water sources in the past. The fracking industry seems to be following suit, where contaminations will surprise us long into the future and in broader areas.