Study, cleanup under way in PA streams contaminated by wastewater radiation
A study published by the journal Environmental Science & Technology last week brought widespread attention to a fact Pennsylvania regulators have known for over two years: Radioactive material in treated oil and gas wastewater has accumulated in the stream sediment near a discharge pipe for a western Pennsylvania treatment plant.
According to a Department of Environmental Protection order from May, which is included below, Fluid Recovery Services found radiation contamination near two of its plants – the Josephine facility in Indiana County that discharges into Blacklick Creek (the focus of the recent journal article) and the Franklin facility in Venango County that discharges into the Allegheny River. The results were inconclusive at a third plant, the Creekside facility in Indiana County that discharges into McKee Run.
The radium levels found near the Josephine facility by a company contractor in 2012 were similar to those reported by the Duke University researchers last week. One sample found downstream of the Franklin plant was even higher.
In its order, DEP said “the direct radiation levels from the sediments pose no immediate exposure risk to the general public passing by the stream, or to employees of the facility.” Last week, the Duke researchers said there is a risk that the radiation could slowly bio-accumulate in aquatic bugs and, eventually, fish.
State and federal regulators have taken steps to stop shale waste fluids from being sent to any state treatment plants that are not governed by strict limits on the amount of salt they can discharge into waterways. The Marcellus Shale industry ended the practice in 2011.
The DEP settlement requires Fluid Recovery Services (the company was bought by Aquatech this year) to remediate the contaminated section of the waterways around the Josephine and Franklin plants while a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency settlement sets strict discharge limits that will require an estimated $30 million in upgrades at the plants.
A DEP spokeswoman said the company has so far met deadlines for the cleanup at the Josephine site by submitting a remediation plan by Sept. 15. DEP approved the plan and the company will now have to get permits to do work in Blacklick Creek.
“Actual stream remediation will most likely occur this summer or fall during low flow periods,” DEP spokeswoman Lisa Kasianowitz said.
The company’s remediation plan and schedule for the Franklin site is due to DEP by Nov. 15. More investigation was necessary to determine if the Creekside site would also need remediation, she said.
A broad and ongoing state study of drilling-related radiation promises to provide more information about whether radioactive material has accumulated near other wastewater treatment facilities. DEP is sampling stream sediments near more than a dozen treatment plants that accept, or used to accept, wastewater from conventional or unconventional drilling.
Of the 25 wastewater plants included in the study, 17 send their treated discharge to streams and DEP has been able to get sediment samples near the outfalls for most of them, Kasianowitz said. “The ones we don’t have samples from were ones we were physically unable to get samples from,” she said.
DEP estimates that a study report will be finished in August.