Greene Drill Shavings Refused at Disposal Site

Washington PA Observer Reporter
6 May 2013

A truck carrying drill cuttings from a Center Township well site set off the radiation warning system at the Max Environmental Technologies disposal site in Yukon, South Huntingdon Township.

The incident happened April 19 when a Rice Energy Inc. truck coming from the Thunder 2 well pad in Greene County set off the alarm while entering the disposal site. The truck was immediately quarantined and tested to determine what type of radiation it contained, according to Department of Environmental Protection spokesman John Poister.

It was determined the truck contained drill cuttings that contained Radium 226 at a level of 96 microrem (mrem). Microrem is the measure of the biological effect of absorbed radiation.

“The standard in Pennsylvania is 10 above background,” said Poister. “Nintety-six is not a tremendously high reading, but it is high enough that it is in that middle area. It is definitely not something we could accept in the Pennsylvania landfills in this area. Max followed the procedure perfectly. They drove to the quarantine area and scanned for the source.”

Background radiation refers to the typical amount of naturally occurring radiation one encounters in everyday life. In the natural environment, radium occurs at very low levels in virtually all rock, soil, water, plants and animals, according to the DEP.

When Max Environmental determined the load contained Radium 226, it was rejected and returned to the well pad in Greene County. According to Poister, Rice Energy located a disposal site in another state that could take that level of Radium 226.

“They have to dispose of it property. If they don’t, there would be a major problem,” he said. “We are certain it was disposed of properly. They have to show us documents.”

However, Poister said he was unaware of which state accepted the load and did not know if the DEP had received the documents.

In 2012, there were 1,325 incidents that disposal facilities reported loads above the 10 mrem limit.

“That includes everything, not just oil and gas. Medical waste, medical testing and other sources of radiation that might be disposed of are in that number,” Poister said. “For the first quarter of 2013, we have had 230 incidents.”

Poister said the DEP does not keep a breakdown where each load comes from, nor do they have numbers that would indicate what sort of increase has occurred since drilling for Marcellus Shale began.

He did note a DEP study was launched in April to look at the radiation numbers.

“The study began because of the figures we’ve seen of material coming in from oil and gas sites tipping radiation numbers,” he said. Poister added that the study would be far reaching and the first of its kind.

“It will look at the effect on just about every aspect of the drilling process to see if there are dangers to the people at the well site, the public and the drivers of the trucks,” he said. “Finding radiation at a drilling site isn’t unusual, but there appears to be a number of incidents now because of horizontal drilling.”

The time required for the intensity of Radium 226 to decrease by one-half is referred to as the “half-life.” Radium 226 has a half-life of 1,600 years, according to the EPA.

The Environmental Protection Agency website lists radium as emitting several different kinds of radiation, particularly alpha particles and gamma rays. Alpha particles generally become harmful if they enter the body. However, both internal and external exposure to gamma radiation is harmful. Radium 226 emits alpha particles.

According to the EPA, long-term exposure to radium increases the risk of developing several diseases. Inhaled or ingested radium increases the risk of developing such diseases as lymphoma, bone cancer and diseases that affect the formation of blood, such as leukemia and aplastic anemia. These usually take years to develop. External exposure to radium’s gamma radiation increases the risk of cancer to varying degrees in all tissues and organs.

However, the greatest health risk from radium is from exposure to its radioactive decay product radon, according to the EPA.

Rice Energy partnered in 2010 with Alpha Natural Resources Inc. to develop Marcellus Shale gas resources as Alpha Shale Resources LP.