A number of important Pennsylvanian streams — many of which feed into the water supplies of large cities in the state — have become significantly contaminated with radioactive water from fracking operations, new research from Duke University has found.
Radium levels 200 times higher than normal were measured in water downstream of the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility — a facility that processes wastewater from natural gas fracking operations in the state. As well as the extremely high levels of radioactive radium, the tested water contained high levels of bromide — a chemical that when exposed to commonly used water-treatment chemicals creates cancer-causing compounds.
The Smithsonian provides more:
Between 10 and 40 percent of fluid sent down during fracking resurfaces, carrying contaminants with it. Some of these contaminants may be present in the fracking water to begin with. But others are leached into the fracking water from groundwater trapped in the rock it fractures. Radium, naturally present in the shales that house natural gas, falls into the latter category—as the shale is shattered to extract the gas, groundwater trapped within the shale, rich in concentrations of the radioactive element, is freed and infiltrates the fracking wastewater.
Other states require this wastewater to be pumped back down into underground deposit wells sandwiched between impermeable layers of rock, but because Pennsylvania has few of these cavities, it is the sole state that allows fracking wastewater to be processed by normal wastewater treatment plants and released into rivers. These plants, many scientists note, are not designed to handle the radioactive elements present in the wastewater. Neither are they required to test their effluent for radioactive elements. As a result, many researchers have suspected that the barely-studied water they release into local streams retains significant levels of radioactivity.
“Even if, today, you completely stopped disposal of the wastewater,” states Avner Vengosh, a researcher at Duke, “there’s enough contamination built up that you’d still end up with a place that the US would consider a radioactive waste site.”
“If people don’t live in those places, it’s not an immediate threat in terms of radioactivity,” he continues. “However, there’s the danger of slow bio-accumulation of the radium. It will eventually end up in fish and that is a biological danger.”
So to sum everything that we know about fracking up into one easy to understand equation: fracking = radioactive water, flammable water, earthquakes, methane emissions, water shortages, and the impending implosion of an economic bubble.
A final note — for those that may be wondering how/why exactly this is happening — it’s important to remember that shale gas production (fracking) is currently exempt from the Clean Water Act….
The new findings were just published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.