As Gas Industry Heats Up, Potentially Radioactive Waste Materials Are Shipped Out – But At What Cost ?

The Columbia Gas well in Beaver County is located at the Blackhawk Storage Facility in South Beaver Township, about 30 miles southeast of Youngstown.

Beaver County’s lone well is different from the wells in Ohio. Columbia Gas stores gas it purchases in the well in the summer, then withdraws the gas to sell in the winter.

Along with the gas, salt water from the Oriskany rock layer is extracted. After the water and gas are separated, the salt water is injected back within the same sandstone formation. The well does not accept outside waste, such as fracking wastewater.

What is radium?

Radium is a naturally occurring radioactive metal formed by the decay of uranium and thorium. It can be found in many types of rock, soil, water, plants and animals. Radium emits different types of radiation, and long-term exposure can be harmful to humans.

As the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania expands at a breakneck pace, drillers are looking outside the state to store radioactive brine wastewater from Marcellus shale well sites.

While shipping out the wastewater which can be high in salt, chemicals and toxic metals seems to make sense from an economic standpoint, the environmental impacts could be devastating: Class II injection wells have been linked to radioactive brine, water contamination and seismic activity.

Earlier this month, a government study found that millions of barrels of fracking wastewater transported from Pennsylvania gas wells to Ohio waste sites contained high levels of radium.

“We found that for a given salinity, produced water from a Marcellus shale well has roughly two to five (times) more radium than what is found in a produced water from a conventional oil or gas well,” said Mark Engle, a U.S. Geological Survey research geologist and co-author of the report. Engle also said that in terms of radioactivity, shale wastewater may be the most dangerous.

“All produced waters are radioactive to some degree,” he said. “Our data suggest that produced waters from the Appalachian Basin contain very high activities of radium, compared to data from other basins, and that those from the Marcellus shale tend to be on the high end of that range. “

The brine was found to be 3,609 times more radioactive than the federal limit for drinking water and 300 times more radioactive than a Nuclear Regulatory Commission limit for industrial discharges to water.

“Im assuming that its because brine water is injected way deeper in the earth,” John Poister, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesman said about the discrepancy in radiation limits between fracking and nuclear waste. “Most nuclear power plants use surface water for both (cooling) supply as well as for discharge, but their treatment has to meet NRC requirements, since surface waters are used downstream for public water supplies and possibly private supplies, too.”

And like Ohio, Pennsylvania does not regulate or even measure radiation levels in fracking waste.

“At present, there is no concerted effort that our Radiation Protection Program is aware of concerning measuring radium concentrations or activities in brine,” Poister said. “We did some surveys years ago, but nothing’s been done that routinely measures radium production during fracking operations.”

Ohio has 171 functioning disposal wells to Pennsylvania’s eight, one of which is in Beaver County.

Of the 12.2 million barrels of wastewater disposed of in Ohio in 2011, more than half came from West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

“Ohio saw a huge increase (in brine storage) when operators could no longer locally dispose of brine water,” said Heidi Hetzel-Evans, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. She also said Ohio has the ideal geography for Class II injection wells, which dispose of fracking wastewater by injecting it deep within the earth.

“Ohio has the target formations that these disposal wells are designed to inject into – sandstone, a porous rock that will take fluid in the formation permanently,” she said.

In addition to being repositories of radiation, Class II injection wells also have been linked to water contamination.

“Injection wells are generally over 5,000 feet deep (at least in our region), and with likely multiple strings of cemented casing, there would be little danger of contaminating shallow aquifers,” Poister said. “However, there may be pits and tanks that could be problematic. In fact, we had some contamination from a leaking brine pit at one of the Somerset wells years ago.”

Engle also pointed out the Bryner lease in Lafayette Township in McKean County, Pa., where injection wells leaked contaminants into nearby streams. The McKean County wells in question have since been plugged, and contamination levels have declined.

Seismic activity is also an issue with Class II injection wells. In 2011, a 4.0-magnitude earthquake in Youngstown, Ohio, was linked to activity at a Class II injection well.

“We believe that injecting wastewater into the basic rock may have caused slippage, increasing the chances of seismic activity,” Hetzel-Evans said.

The well, operated by D&L Energy, is the only Class II injection well believed to have caused seismic activity.

Ohio has since passed Senate Bill 315, which calls for water testing within 1,500 feet of planned oil and gas wells, annual reports on the economic impact of businesses involved in fracking, increased documentation and insurance for horizontal wells, registration requirements for brine haulers, and more reporting of wastewater disposal.

State regulations for the wells were tightened further in July, when Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich signed Executive Order 2012-09K. The order required the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to do more testing and perform additional safeguards as part of the permitting process for an injection well.

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