Friday, April 1, 2011

Radioactivity beyond the nuclear sphere

As concerns associated with the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daichii nuclear power plant in Japan continue to emerge, other worries about radioactivity--although of a lower level--are playing out on U.S. soils.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, a New York Times article published in March suggested that wastewater treatment plants are not adequately treating water that flows up from hydraulically fractured natural gas wells in Pennsylvania.  According to the Times, this potentially insufficient treatment is problematic because the flowback water from fractured gas wells is slightly radioactive.  As also mentioned in my earlier post, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has since stated that tests of waters downstream of wastewater treatment plants proved that the water was safe.  The EPA, however, states that "several sources of data . . . indicate that the wastewater resulting from gas drilling operations contains variable and sometimes high concentrations of materials that may present a threat to human health and aquatic environment, including radionuclides . . . ." and has demanded further testing. In Pennsylvania, most flowback water from fractured gas wells goes to wastewater treatment plants for disposal.  Other states like Oklahoma, however, allow flowback waste to be "buried" or disposed of in a surface pit, although it is unclear how many gas drillers opt for these disposal methods in lieu of underground injection--a common disposal technique.  (See Ok. Admin. Code § 165:10-7-24 (b)(3), (c)(1),(2),(5), and (7).)

Low-level radioactivity in flowback water from hydraulically fractured wells is not the only potential concern.  Whenever an oil or gas well is drilled, solid materials called cuttings also come to the surface.  These, like flowback water, may contain low levels of radioactive material--called "naturally occurring radioactive materials" or "NORM" wastes in the oil and gas world.  The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has concluded that radioactivity from NORM waste poses little concern to workers (see page 5-30 of the link), but with the recent focus on radioactivity in flowback water, the safety of cuttings disposal might begin to receive more attention.  Currently, many states allow drill cuttings to be buried on site, although regulations differ depending on whether the cuttings are contaminated with hydrocarbons and salts, and some regulations require a minimum distance between the buried cuttings and water. (See, for example, 25 Pa. Code 78.61; Code Md. Reg. W; Ok. Admin. Code § 165:10-7-26.)

The radioactivity of flowback water from hydraulically fractured wells and drill cuttings from oil and gas wells is dramatically lower than that of nuclear wastes.  Still, the thousands of new wells being drilled, combined with the several millions of gallons of water required to hydraulically fracture just one well--have begun to raise eyebrows.  When sufficient quantities of materials with low levels of radioactivity are disposed of, the public begins to notice.

-Hannah Wiseman

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