The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

News

March 1, 2011

Is radioactive material flowing into the state's rivers?

New York Times article causes concerns

A New York Times article Sunday revealed concerns that Pennsylvania’s lax oversight of fracking waste may be letting radioactive material into the commonwealths’ rivers. This includes the Susquehanna, where a Shamokin Dam treatment plant can process up to 80,000 gallons of drilling fluid a day.

However, Norm Zellers, operations support manager at Sunbury Generation LP in Shamokin Dam, said the Snyder County plant does have testing done for radioactive material at a certified laboratory in western Pennsylvania.

“We’ve been analyzing from very beginning,” Zellers said, noting that state Department of Environmental Protection officials and other groups have been to the plant many times to check on the plant’s output.

The New York Times story found that few treatment plants indicated they did testing, and quotes state Department of Environmental Protection paperwork that suggests the plan for handling contaminants focuses on making sure the waste goes into large rivers, such as the Susquehanna, so that it can be diluted rather than directly treating the waste.

The Susquehanna provides drinking water to more than 6 million people, the Times report stated.

DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh said Monday that “DEP is committed to overseeing this industry in an environmentally conscious manner.”

“In the past 18 months, our oil and gas staff has more than doubled, and that staff includes 78 employees who are charged with inspecting the well sites,” she added.

Gresh also said 2,815 Marcellus Shale wells have been drilled to date; the Times article said there are 71,000 active gas wells in the state.

In the case of Sunbury Generation, Zellers said samples from every tanker truck that brings in drilling wastewater are sent to Geochemical Testing in Somerset for analysis.

Timothy Bergstresser, owner of Geochemical Testing, did not return Daily Item phone calls seeking comment Monday.

Zellers said the fluid treated at Sunbury Generation is flowback, also known as brine or production brine, a mix of naturally occurring salts, rock dust and metals with water used in production.

Drilling fluid is water, mud and other additives, such as surfactants, used in initial drilling. Frack water is used during drilling, a mixture of water, fine sand and chemicals that shatter the shale to release the gas trapped within it.

“We have not seen the high levels of radioactivity” cited in the New York Times article, Zellers told the Daily Item, adding that “you can have more radioactivity on a bunch of bananas in the store or on a granite countertop.”

In a Nov. 17 Daily Item report, Zellers said about 15 companies drilling in Marcellus Shale truck their wastewater to Sunbury Generation, which DEP authorized it to treat in November 2008.

Sunbury Generation treats an average of 1.7 million to 1.9 million gallons of wastewater per day, Zellers said. Marcellus Shale wastewater makes up 8 percent of that.

Sunbury Generation has traditional processes in place for separating what are called suspended solids — usually grease, mud and oil — from any wastewater or fluid it treats. What’s left behind is a cake of solids.

It’s in the solids that any radioactive material would be, state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-23 of Williamsport,  said, also asserting that state treatment facilities already test for radioactive material in Marcellus Shale wastewater.

There are DEP standards for landfills that take hazardous materials, Yaw said, adding that very little of this material is disposed of in Pennsylvania.

Citing Lycoming County in his district as an example, every load that arrives at a landfill is scanned for radioactivity, Yaw said, sounding an alarm if anything turns up. The monitoring is done according to DEP standards, he added.

Yaw said the New York Times article is wrong, noting it gives “the impression that nothing is happening ... when people say there is no monitoring (of the gas drilling) and it’s done haphazardly.”

“Pennsylvania has some of the toughest environmental standards,” he said, “and some of the toughest drinking water standards. It baffles me that people don’t understand the level of regulation we have. We were way ahead of the curve when it came to environmental legislation, and as (former DEP Secretary John) Hanger said, we had the tools in place.”

Responding to the New York Times story in his blog, Hanger called on DEP to order immediately testing on all public water systems for radium or radioactive pollutants and make the results public.

Hanger said “good reasons exist to believe” there are not unhealthy levels of radium in the drinking water stemming from gas drilling wastewater, “but belief is not good enough.”

He added, “We must not drift into a war of competing theories or studies.  We need the facts.”

Sam Pearson, chairman of Sierra Club, took the Times article as a call to action.

“For those ready to stop ignoring it, it’s time to write directly to the governor, insist that safeguards that have been removed be put back in place and emphasize the critical importance of a moratorium on continued development while preparations for doing the work without all the destruction already in motion can be made,” Pearson said.

The New York Times states on its website that its report, part of a series, stems from nine months of research, including the review of more than 30,000 pages of documents it obtained through open-records requests of state and federal agencies, and by visiting regional offices that oversee drilling in Pennsylvania.

The Times reported that some of the documents were leaked by state or federal officials.

As with most news related to Marcellus Shale, reaction to the Times story has been fast and sharp.

“This is very scary, and it needs to change,” said Charles Sackrey, co-chairman of Organizations United for the Environment. “All this article does is support the facts of what we have been saying all along.”

“This has got to be taken seriously now, “said David Young of Lewisburg, also an activist on gas-drilling issues. “Radioactivity in water is one of many problems, and our local politicians have to be able to see this and begin to speak out against it.”

But Yaw took issue with the Times report, particularly because the paper didn’t interview Hanger, “who is one of the greenest secretaries we’ve ever had,” he said.

“If I had to comment on what people need to be worried about, it would be educating themselves and getting the facts before they make a decision,” Yaw said. “I think what has gone on now is people hear something, and they take it as being true when it’s factually inaccurate. ... I don’t think there is any question that this article was written as ‘here is my conclusion, now how do I get there.’ ”

Zellers also commented on misinformation circulating among communities, noting some tanker drivers who come to Sunbury Generation and grew up in Dimock told him naturally occurring gas in the well water there is nothing new.

Residents of Dimock in Susquehanna County found many of their water wells contaminated; Cabot Oil has been fined and given other sanctions as a result.

Tim Kelsey, professor of agricultural economics at Penn State University who researches economic development issues in Pennsylvania, including the economic impact of Marcellus Shale, said he was “troubled” by the Times story.

“What troubled me most is the question of credibility. Beyond the issue of radioactivity and water concerns … if the information the Times was able to access from EPA and industry and DEP indicated that they were aware of problems and concerns, but in that time frame (officials) were saying things were under control and safe ... it goes to heart of credibility question.

“The broad credibility issue is: what does this mean for other issues and current assurances from regulators and industry that everything is under control?”

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