For the first time scientists have documented dangerous levels of radioactivity and salinity at a shale gas waste disposal site. Samples taken downstream from the Joseph Brine Treatment Facility in Pennsylvania revealed radium levels 200 times greater than samples taken upstream. This level of radioactivity is above regulated levels, which normally would be approached only at licensed radioactive disposal facilities. The study conducted by scientists at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment is the first to use isotope hydrology to connect shale gas waste, treatment sites and discharge into drinking water supplies. The water discharge tested in the study was from the Blacklick Creek, which feeds into a water source for western Pennsylvania cities including Pittsburgh. The biggest danger is the threat of a slow bio-accumulation of radium, which would eventually end up in fish and be a biological disaster.
The study also revealed saline levels 200 times greater than the regulated limit, which isn’t immediately harmful, but it shows that the waste from the shale is not being properly treated and disposed.
Shale gas production is exempt form the Clean Water Act, and the industry has pledged to self-monitor its waste production in order to avoid regulation. A study with U.S. Geological Survey scientists found no evidence of drinking water contamination related to shale gas production in Arkansas, evidence indicating how unequal regulation of production and waste disposal methods are across the country.
A previous study, published earlier this year by the same scientists at Duke, revealed higher methane, ethane, and propane concentrations in drinking water near shale gas drilling. The methane concentrations found were 6 times higher and ethane concentrations were 23 times higher at homes within a kilometer of a shale gas well; propane was detected in 10 of the 141 wells tested. This was the first study to offer direct evidence of ethane and propane contamination of drinking water wells from shale drilling.
Felicity Carus, “Dangerous Levels of Radioactivity Found at Fracking Waste Site in Pennsylvania,” The Guardian, October 2, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/02/dangerous-radioactivity-fracking-waste-pennsylvania.
Nathaniel R. Warner, Cidney A. Christie, Robert B. Jackson, and Avner Vengosh, “Impacts of Shale Gas Wastewater Disposal on Water Quality in Western Pennsylvania,” Environmental Science Technology, October 2, 2013, http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es402165b.
Robert Jackson and Avner Vengosh, “Higher Levels of Stray Gas Found in Water Wells Near Shale Gas Sites” Robert Jackson, Duke Environment, June 24, 2013, http://nicholas.duke.edu/news/higher-levels-stray-gases-found-water-wells-near-shale-gas-sites.
Robert Jackson, Avner Vengosh, et al., “Increased Stray Gas Abundance in a Subset of Drinking Water Wells Near Marcellus Shale Gas Extraction,” Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, June 24, 2013, in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1221635110.
Student Researchers: Jack Peck, Jorawar Brar and Lillian Reed (DePauw University)
Faculty Evaluators: James Mills and Kevin Howley (DePauw University)