Radioactive Water? Now More Than Ever, Let's Scrutinize Gas Drilling

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
7 March 2011

Now is not the time to relax state oversight on drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale. Yet that is precisely what the Corbett administration seems to be doing.

It recently rescinded a policy requiring an environmental review before drilling in state parks and it suspended a guideline requiring the state to consider and regulate the collective emissions of gas wells in a region.

An extensive story in The New York Times on Feb. 27 revealed that wastewater from the process of hydraulic fracturing, which breaks up the underground rock and releases the natural gas, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known and much higher than is safe for waste treatment plants to handle.

The report, based on an examination of more than 30,000 pages of federal, state and industry records on more than 200 gas wells in Pennsylvania, 40 in West Virginia and 20 wastewater treatment plants, indicates that not all the potential hazards from drilling have been under scrutiny. The degree of radioactivity in fracking wastewater must not be overlooked by regulators, drillers and treatment plants that will discharge the fluids into waterways used for drinking water.

The Times reported that wastewater from 179 Marcellus Shale wells in Pennsylvania had high levels of radiation, including 116 wells with radioactivity 100 times as high as the levels set by federal drinking water standards. Fifteen wells had wastewater with more than 1,000 times the acceptable amount of radioactive elements.

Left unmonitored and untreated, this is an unacceptable risk to public health. Fortunately, officials for some systems, like Pennsylvania American Water and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, have said they will test voluntarily for radiation. But that's not good enough; state and federal regulators must mandate testing for radiation in water that could be affected by Marcellus Shale drilling.

That may pose additional costs to water and sewer systems, but it's the kind of added scrutiny that could be covered by revenue from a state drilling tax -- if only Gov. Tom Corbett would drop his opposition to the idea.

In the meantime, Pennsylvanians must arm themselves with more information on the promise and problems of Marcellus drilling. Toward that end, the Post-Gazette has launched a special website called Pipeline (, a rich resource of news articles, maps, glossaries, corporate listings, community meetings, citizen postings and more. Pipeline also contains the entire eight-page special section, The Marcellus Boom, published two Sundays ago as a primer on the scope and impact of this energy and economic phenomenon.

Radiation in drinking water may be new on the list of Marcellus Shale drilling concerns, but citizens who become informed are taking the first big step toward getting the oversight by the state, the accountability by the industry and the careful approach to public health that they deserve.