Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection wants publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities to test for radioactive materials on a twice-monthly basis. DEP will also continue testing for radioactivity in seven rivers on a monthly or bi-monthly basis.
Natural gas drilling can bring naturally-occurring radium, uranium and other radioactive elements to the surface, and there’s concern the contaminants could make their way into streams, rivers, and possibly drinking water. A New York Times series on concerns over radioactivity in fracking fluid received substantial attention in February; tests DEP released in March showed normal levels in Pennsylvania’s waterways.
Acting DEP Secretary Michael Krancer spelled out the new guidelines in a letter written to Shawn Garvin of the Environmental Protection Agency, who wrote to Krancer on March 7th to request additional tests for radiation. “Rest assured that well before receiving your letter, the DEP has been focusing on issues relating to natural gas drilling, and priorities protecting the environment and public health and safety above all else,” Krancer wrote.
Two tests a month aren’t enough for Brady Russell, the Eastern Pennsylvania Director for Clean Water Action. “A wastewater treatment plant isn’t constantly treating Marcellus wastewater,” he said. “They treat it when the trucks show up. And they show up occasionally and they treat it right away and they dump it right away. But they could go – who knows, they could go two weeks without any business from the Marcellus Shale industry, and then they get six trucks worth of it.”
Russell also doesn’t like the fact DEP is asking the treatment centers to conduct the tests themselves. “It’d be easy under the letter that Krancer has written to these wastewater treatment facilities for them to do a grab sample or a short-term sample two weeks since they’ve had any Marcellus business, and right before the next set of trucks came in. Yup, everything looks fine,” he said, continuing, “[Centers] want to keep getting this business, right? So they have every incentive to intentionally test at the wrong time.”
The EPA suggested Pennsylvania reassess the treatment facilities’ permits, now that they’re processing fracking fluid. “These permits do not now include critical provisions necessary for effective processing and treatment of wastewaters from drilling operations. Again, it is welcome that you intend to reopen these permits,” wrote EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin on March 7th. Krancer said DEP won’t do that, writing back that new requirements will be added to permits “at the time of their renewal.”