It has been over seven years since Pennsylvania officials requested that the dumping of radium-laden fracking wastewater into surface waters be restricted. However, a new study has found high levels of radioactivity persist in stream sediments at three disposal sites.
But the contamination is coming from the disposal of conventional oil and gas wastewater, and not fracking wastewater. Current state regulations allow conventional wastewater to be treated and discharged into local streams.
Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality, said in a statement:
“It’s not only fracking fluids that pose a risk; produced water from conventional, or non-fracked, oil and gas wells also contains high levels of radium, which is a radioactive element.
“Disposal of this wastewater causes an accumulation of radium on the stream sediments that decays over time and converts into other radioactive elements.”
At the disposal sites, the level of radiation discovered was around 650 times higher than radiation in upstream sediments. Even more incredibly, in some cases it surpassed the radioactivity level that would require disposal only at federally designated radioactive waste disposal sites. Nancy Lauer, a Nicholas School PhD student who led the study, explained that:
“Our analysis confirms that this accumulation of radioactivity is derived from the disposal of conventional oil and gas wastewater after 2011, when authorities limited the disposal of unconventional oil and gas wastewater.
“The radionuclide ratios we measured in the sediments and the rates of decay and growth of radioactive elements in the impacted sediments allowed us to essentially age-date the contamination to after 2011.”
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection back in 2011 requested that the discharge of fracking fluids and other unconventional oil and gas wastewater into surface waters be prohibited from central water-treatment facilities that release high salinity effluents.
This request was in response to growing public concern about the possible environmental and human health effects of fracking wastewater. However, the Department allowed the disposal of treated wastewater from conventional oil and gas operations to continue. Vengosh explained the downfall of allowing it to continue:
“Despite the fact that conventional oil and gas wastewater is treated to reduce its radium content, we still found high levels of radioactive build-up in the stream sediments we sampled.
“Radium is attached to these sediments, and over time, even a small amount of radium being discharged into a stream accumulates to generate high radioactivity in the stream sediments.
“While restricting the disposal of fracking fluids to the environment was important, it’s not enough.
“Conventional oil and gas wastewater also contain radioactivity, and their disposal to the environment must be stopped, too.”
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