Scientists find radioactive fracking waste in Pennsylvanian stream

A group of Duke University scientists have found concentrations of radium, a highly radioactive substance, in a stream near a facility that treats wastewater left over from hydraulic fracturing. The concentrations are 200 times higher than background levels — and they're in the water supply.

Fracking is the practice of pumping chemical-laced liquids underground at high pressure to help bring gasses, like methane, to the surface for extraction. But these chemicals are known to seep into groundwater. And the high-pressure may be causing earthquakes.

In Pennsylvania, there are 74 facilities that treat fracking wastewater — water that eventually makes its way back into local streams. But there's no national set of guidelines that overlook and regulate this treatment process. What's more, scientists have performed few studies of the wastewater to ensure that it's safe after treatment.

But now, as the Smithsonian reports, Duke scientists decided to do some testing:

They contacted the owners of one treatment plant, the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility on Blacklick Creek in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, but, “when we tried to work with them, it was very difficult getting ahold of the right person,” says Avner Vengosh, an Earth scientist from Duke. “Eventually, we just went and tested water right from a public area downstream.”

Their analyses, made on water samples collected repeatedly over the course of two years, were even more concerning than we’d feared. As published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, they found high concentrations of the element radium, a highly radioactive substance. The concentrations were roughly 200 times higher than background levels. In addition, amounts of chloride and bromide in the water were two to ten times greater than normal.

“Even if, today, you completely stopped disposal of the wastewater,” Vengosh says, there’s enough contamination built up that”you’d still end up with a place that the U.S. would consider a radioactive waste site.” [emphasis mine]

Yikes. The radium, which is naturally present in shale that stores natural gas, gets freed by the fracking process, infiltrating the wastewater.

Thanks to the Duke researchers, it's clear that without proper controls, the wastewater is being returned to the environment in a state that poses a genuine risk for local residents. And indeed, at least one plant — about an hour's drive east of Pittsburgh — is releasing this radioactive effluent into the watershed that supplies the city's drinking water.

Read the entire report at Smithsonian to learn more, including why the bromide is also bad news. And check out the study at Environmental Science and Technology: "Impacts of Shale Gas Wastewater Disposal on Water Quality in Western Pennsylvania."

Image via Environmental Science and Technology/Warner et. al.