By David Conti
State environmental regulators and owners of an Indiana County water treatment plant say they’ve been working for years to avoid any more of the radioactive Marcellus shale discharge that Duke University researchers found in a study published on Wednesday.
“DEP is very well aware of this,” Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Lisa Kasianowitz said about the study that called radiation levels in Black Lick Creek alarming.
The agency and Josephine treatment plant owner Fluid Recovery Services signed an agreement in May that bars the facility from accepting, treating or discharging wastewater from unconventional drilling operations, such as those used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus shale through hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
The agreement and related fines from the Environmental Protection Agency came from tests in 2011 that showed excessive levels of radioactive chemicals in the creek’s sediment near the plant.
Study co-author Avner Vengosh, a professor at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said isotopes in the water that researchers sampled for more than two years indicate the plant continued to treat and release wastewater from Marcellus fracking sites even though the plant and the DEP said it stopped in 2011.
Devesh Mittal, vice president of Canonsburg-based Aquatech, which bought Fluid Recovery Services this year, denied that claim.
“We haven’t done that since 2011,” he said.
The study adds to a nascent but growing body of research on fracking that continues to provide an inconsistent picture of potential environmental impact. DEP is conducting a sweeping study of all possible impacts around drilling.
DEP knows that both fracking and conventional drilling can free naturally occurring radioactivity from rock formations and leave it in wastewater, Kasianowitz said. The May agreement says Black Lick Creeks’s radioactive sediment, while above accepted levels, posed no immediate risk to people passing by.
Vengosh said data from the peer-reviewed study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, showed the ratio of fracking wastewater in the creek decreased but never disappeared.
“How does the facility know what’s in the trucks” that drillers bring, Vengosh asked. “It could be mixed.”
Kasianowitz said regulators monitor what the plant discharges and have been back to the Josephine plant since May to ensure no more fracking water is treated or discharged.
The agreement calls for Aquatech to upgrade the Josephine plant and two others so they can accept and properly treat Marcellus wastewater with high radioactive levels. Mittal said the EPA estimated the cost at $30 million per plant, although he would not say how much the company is spending.
“We are building the infrastructure to help this industry prosper,” he said.