Illegal Dumping of Fracking Wastewater May Be Linked to
Radioactivity in PA Creek, Experts Say
21 August 2015
By Sharon Kelly
Recently released testing results in western Pennsylvania,
upstream from Pittsburgh, reveal evidence of radioactive
contamination in water flowing from an abandoned mine. Experts say
that the radioactive materials may have come from illegal dumping
of shale fracking wastewater.
Regulators had previously found radioactivity levels that exceeded
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) drinking
water standards more than 60-fold in waters in the same area,
which is roughly three miles upstream from a drinking water
intake, but those test results were only made public after a local
environmental group obtained them through open
At the end of July, the West Virginia Water Research
Institute released the results from its tests of water
flowing from an abandoned coal mine.
Most of the sampling results showed no detectable radioactivity,
but one test result showed roughly 13 picocuries per liter (pci/l)
of gross alpha radioactivity, just below the EPA‘s drinking
water limits, confirming the presence of radioactive materials in
the mine’s discharge.
“There’s something going on there that’s not right,” Paul
Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research
Institute told the Pittsburgh Post-GazetteIllegal Dumping of
Fracking Wastewater May Be Linked to Radioactivity in PA Creek,
Experts Say -DeSmogBlog - 21 August 2015. “The radiation, together
with higher bromide levels than you would expect to see coming out
of a deep mine, point to drilling wastewater.”
In April 2014, under pressure from local environmental groups, the
state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had taken
samples from the same mine, the Clyde Mine in Washington County,
Pennsylvania, as it discharged into 10 Mile Creek, a popular
destination for boaters and fishermen.
Those tests showed one sample with radioactive materials
(specifically radium 226 and radium 228) totaling 327 pci/l at and
a second totaling 301 pci/l—in other words, up to 65 times the
radium levels that the EPA considers safe in drinking water.
Some had speculated that the 2014 test results could simply have
been flukes or false positives, a claim that seems less likely now
that the subsequent round of testing by independent researchers
also showed the presence of radioactivity.
The DEP is continuing to investigate, but some in the
region say that these efforts are less than satisfactory.
“The DEP has known of elevated levels of radiation in the streams
for more than a year, during which time countless people have
recreated in (the water) and been exposed to possible harm,”
Patrick Grenter, director of Center for Coalfield
Justice, told the state press.
The discharges from the Clyde Mine flow into Ten Mile Creek, a
tributary of the Monongahela River, which serves as a drinking
water supply for much of Pittsburgh and the
One drinking water intake, the Tri County Joint Municipal
Authority, is located just three miles downstream from the mine
and has been plagued for years by problems with another drilling
wastewater-related substance, trihalomethanes.
Very low levels—1 pci/l—of one form of radium were found when that
drinking water was tested last year. But tests for other
radioactive materials known to be associated with fracking have
not been done for years at the plant.
In 2011, the New York Times reported that Pennsylvania was
allowing drillers to legally dump shale gas wastewater through
sewage treatment plants, knowing that the plants could not remove
the radioactive materials found in shale waste—and that no testing
had been done to find out whether the state’s drinking water
supplies were safe.
Since then, high levels of radioactivity have been found in
sediments downstream from wastewater treatment plants, but the
April 2014 testing was the first to show illegally high levels of
wastewater in the state’s rivers and streams.
Ken Dufalla, a local environmentalist who filed the open records
request, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he was concerned
that the more than 1.6 trillion gallons of water trapped in the
Clyde Mine’s underground labyrinth had been contaminated by
illegal shale wastewater dumping. “I’m going to keep turning every
stone over until we find out what’s going on,” he added.
The recent tests showed radioactivity was present, but at 13
pci/l, slightly below the 15 pci/l that the EPA considers the
maximum for drinking water safety.
Prof. Ziemkiewicz told DeSmog Blog that it is unusual to see any
radioactivity at all coming out of deep mines like Clyde Mine, so
that while July’s results were below the EPA’s drinking water
standard, his organization would be continuing to test. He had not
conducted tests of the sediments in the riverbed, he added.
State environmental regulators also launched a new round of their
own testing, with results due out before the end of
But those tests have drawn strong criticism from those closely
following the issue because the creek was flowing unusually
fast—more than ten times its normal volume—when the samples
were taken. That means that the discharge from the mine would be
far more diluted than normal, so tests would return abnormally
The DEP’s testing has drawn outrage from local environmental
organizations as a result.
“DEP’s recent sampling of Ten Mile Creek flies in the face of
common sense and reveals a disturbing lack of seriousness that is
dismissive of the community in Greene County and the significance
of this situation,” Mr. Grenter told PublicSource.
The half-life for radium 226 is 1,600 years, meaning even then it
will still be half as potent at it is today. According to the EPA,
long term exposure to radium increases risk of lymphoma, bone
cancer and leukemia.
The state’s testing methods are also under scrutiny.
Earlier this year, a peer-reviewed study found that the EPA’s
approved method for testing drinking water for
radioactivity can understate radium levels in fracking
wastewater by as much as 99 percent because the high levels of
corrosive salts also in fracking waste can throw off testing
The DEP’s 2014 test results used a different and more accurate
technique, gamma spectroscopy, to measure radioactivity levels,
but state regulators in the Marcellus region have at times used
the EPA’s flawed testing methods, known as EPA 903 and EPA 904 to
measure radium in fracking waste.
This is not the first time that regulators have suspected that
abandoned coal mines are being used to surreptitiously get rid of
fracking wastewater. In 2011, leaked internal EPA emails gave the
public a window into one such investigation involving suspected
illegal dumping in the Gateway Mine near Ruff Creek, Pennsylvania.
Fracking and drilling generate hundreds of billions of gallons of
wastewater a year nationwide and disposing of the waste is proving
to be one of the most intractable issues associated with fracking.
As evidence grows that injecting it underground is causing
earthquakes, drillers are increasingly looking to dispose of their
waste by treating it to remove toxic materials. But the highly
variable mix of various elements, corrosive salts, petroleum
byproducts and other dangerous substances is extremely difficult
to adequately treat.
Concern over radioactivity and other contaminants in fracking
waste led the EPA to announce in July that it planned to
officially block drillers from dumping waste at sewage treatment
plants nationwide. Pennsylvania regulators had previously asked
drillers to voluntarily refrain from using the plants, but there
has been no mandatory bans on the practice until now.
The proposal drew immediate pushback from the oil and gas
industry, which argued that the EPA would likely next move to
stop the industry from using all treatment plants that dump
“If that is foreclosed,” Lee Fuller, Independent Petroleum
Association of America’s (IPAA) executive vice president,
told FuelFix, “then we’re facing a loss of production because the
water can’t be managed.”