New Hazard of Gas: Drilling Flow-Back Water:
Only six treatment plants in PA

Narrowsburg, NY River Reporter
8-14 January 2009
By Tom Kane

RIVER VALLEY - According to some, every consequence of gas drilling can be taken care of except one: the disposal of the flow-back water that comes out of the well after drilling.

Much of the water used in the drilling process called "fracking" - about 40 percent of the total - is pushed back to the surface by the gas released from the shale, according to information provided by several gas drilling companies. And that water is changed from having been in the earth.

"That's the bigger issue. They don't have an analysis of what's in the wastewater they're pulling out," said Dr. Conrad Dan Volz of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health. "What they're putting into the wells can chemically change and be added to underground, and no one is saying how much arsenic, manganese, cobalt, chromium and lead is in the stuff [when it comes back up]. Depending on the concentration, it could be a hazardous waste."

And as if that weren't enough, the wastewater could become radioactive. The radiation is euphemistically referred to as naturally occurring radioactive material or NORM. Numerous state agencies have their hands in NORM activity in one way or another, and inspectors can make spot checks or investigate complaints, but, in the end, states rely on companies to manage their natural radioactive material waste.

"By default, in oil and gas production, the agency does not have any specific regulations that deal with NORM or any radioactive material," said EPA spokesman Dave Bay. "Our role is limited to consulting with the state at their request."

The risk for NORM in wastewater can vary from virtually none to potentially ruinous to human health and the environment. Within the Barnett Shale sites in Texas, which are similar to the Marcellus Shale, two contamination companies have cleaned 25 sites of about 1,000 barrels of radioactive waste in two years, according to a news report from the November 14, 2007 edition of the Denton Record-Chronicle.

NORM consists of Radium 226 and Radium 228, which are bone seekers that result in lung cancer and bone cancer. "The routes of exposure are inhalation and ingestion," said Wilma Supra, president of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, who has been called "the genial grandmother top gun in environmental activism" by the New Orleans Times Picayune.

"When the material experiences a change in pressure and temperature, the NORM precipitates out and forms radioactive scale. Frequently, the production piping containing NORM scale is used to build playground equipment and contaminates the area where children play."

Also, radon, which is present in much of Pennsylvania's landmass, is the second leading cause of lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. The colorless, odorless radioactive gas can become concentrated in homes and buildings, especially when they are built over NORM-contaminated soils.

"Yes, we're concerned [about gas drilling]," said Mark Hartle, chief of aquatic resources for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. "And we're more concerned with the recovered fluids from the wells than with the water they use to do the fracking initially. The problem is we're not sure what they're ending up with, so we don't know the constituents of the discharges."

Not just any water treatment plant is able to accept such discharges. Only industrial water treatment facilities with the unique capacity to handle this kind of waste can be used.

"Some of the waste water is trucked to one of six industrial water treatment plant in the state," said Dave McGuigan, associate director of EPA's regional office of permits and enforcement. One of the companies that operates such plants, Pennsylvania Brine Treatment, Inc., wants to build six more.

DEP has said that it is actively studying the wastewater from the state's fast-growing natural gas exploration activity to determine whether it is hazardous to human health, said DEP spokesman Tom Rathbun. The chemical analysis should be finished by the end of January. Regardless of what is found, Rathbun said, the gas industry must come up with ways to treat the massive amounts of wastewater coming out of wells being drilled now.