DEP and EPA Settle Frackwater Radium Issue with Firm

Pittsburgh Business Times
23 May 2013
Anya Litvak, Reporter

Within the span of a few days in early May, Paul Hart signed a lot of documents that would change the way his oil and gas wastewater treatment plants would function in the future.

Besides merging them into a new company, Fluid Recovery Services, and selling that company to Aquatech International, Hart also signed two separate agreements with state and federal regulators that will result in a more than $20 million overhaul of his facilities, and likely an $83,000 penalty from the Environmental Protection Agency.

This started with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection investigating Hart Resource Technologies and Pennsylvania Brine Treatment for alleged unauthorized discharges of shale wastewater laced with radioactive elements into streams.

In July 2011, the DEP collected sediment samples at PA Brine’s Josephine plant in Indiana County, where discharges were going into Blacklick Creek. The agency found levels of radium 226 in the discharge pipe that were 44 times the drinking water standard, and 20 meters downstream of the discharge at 66 percent above that standard.

The DEP also ordered Hart and PA Brine to hire an outside firm to test for radium all around the facility. That, too, turned up elevated levels.

The next year, the two companies voluntarily tested their other facilities — the Franklin plant in Venango County and the Creekside facility in Indiana County — and also found higher than normal concentrations of radium in the steam bed and stream banks of the Allegheny River and downstream of discharge points.

The conclusion was that the radium was deposited before the spring of 2011, when Hart’s facilities were still accepting Marcellus wastewater. In April 2011, they stopped at DEP's request.

That request, made to the industry as a whole, was the impetus behind Paul Hart’s decision to upgrade his plants, and what ultimately led to their sale to Aquatech, he told me last week.

At that time, before the consent agreements with the DEP and EPA were made public, Hart stressed how important it was for him not to have an adversarial relationship with the DEP and to have his technology blessed by the agency.

The DEP and EPA investigations began a few months after the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Health Environments and Communities sounded the alarm about the Josephine plant.

Under the direction of Conrad “Dan” Volz, who left Pitt in 2011 because he said it was restricting his anti-fracking activism, the center sampled discharges from that facility into Blacklick Creek in December 2010.

Volz even highlighted the elevated pollutant levels he found there in Congressional testimony in April 2011, though he had not yet tested for radioactivity levels.

DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said the agency's investigation started as part of an effort to develop a methodology for analyzing sediments for radiation from shale frack water.

In January 2013, the DEP announced a “comprehensive oil and gas development radiation study” and in that announcement stated that its sampling of rivers and streams around wastewater plants showed no cause for alarm.

“Most results showed no detectable levels of radioactivity, and the levels that were detectable did not exceed safe drinking water standards,” the agency’s statement said.

That was in-stream monitoring, Sunday said. The sediment samples taken in 2011 from Blacklick Creek where the Josephine plant was discharging water, are a different story.

Still, both the DEP and company officials stressed there was no danger to the health of plant workers or people walking by the stream at Josephine.

Now, the facilities, owned by Aquatech, are undergoing a makeover.

“The sense is that the current FRS management is essentially the white knight,” Devesh Mittal, vice president and general manager of Aquatech Energy Services, told me Thursday.

“Essentially the approach is that whatever happened in the past should not happen. It is not conducive to the environment and to growth and being able to deliver these services to the industry,” he said.

FRS already has two other plants that will be handling Marcellus wastewater before the original three are outfitted with necessary technology. A new plant in Tioga County opened a few weeks ago and another one is being built in Rouseville.

Mittal said the company has started the permitting process to upgrade the Josephine plant, but doesn’t have a timeline for Creekside and Franklin.

Anya Litvak covers energy, transportation, gaming, engineering and construction. Contact her at or 412-208-3824.