Energy. Environment. Economy.

Study: Radioactive gas drilling waste not a threat to public health

A worker holds a brick of solid waste from gas drilling operations.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A worker holds a brick of solid waste from gas drilling operations.

A Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection study looking at radiation exposure from oil and gas development says there is “little potential for harm to workers or the public.”

DEP released the peer-reviewed report Thursday, which Governor Corbett initiated in January 2013. DEP hired PermaFix, an Atlanta-based company that specializes in nuclear and industrial waste disposal, to conduct the research. The study looked at the radioactivity levels in waste resulting from gas drilling, including fracking wastewater, drill cuttings and waste solids. It also measured radioactivity through the waste transport, storage and disposal process. A DEP official says the study is the most thorough to date:

“The study report is the culmination of a multi-year effort and represents what we believe to be the most comprehensive radiological study of the oil and gas industry ever conducted,” Vince Brisini, DEP Deputy Secretary for Waste, Air, Radiation and Remediation said in a press release. “While the recommendations for future actions contained in the report call for additional studies and efforts, we now have data to inform the management of natural gas resources and resultant wastes for environmental and health protection.”

Attempts to reach Brisini, or any of the authors of the study directly, were unsuccessful. The DEP press office did not return calls or email.

Marcellus Shale, like other rich fossil fuel deposits, can contain naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). This radioactive material, including uranium (U-238), thorium (Th-232), potassium (K-40), and radon can be brought to the surface through oil and gas production and released.

Scientists and regulators are still debating the impacts of contact with small levels of radiation. But the report concludes that oil and gas production poses little potential for exposure to radon, a dangerous gas that can cause lung cancer. Radon is found in almost all rocks and soil, and it forms from the decay of radium. The study also concludes that workers are not at risk. The study does warn, however, that waste water spills could be dangerous:

Radium should be added to the Pennsylvania spill protocol to ensure cleanups are adequately characterized. There are also site-specific circumstances and situations where the use of personal protective equipment by workers or other controls should be evaluated.

The report also recommends review of protocols for the disposal of “filter cakes,” the dry material left over from waste water recycling. And it says further study of waste treatment facilities and the use of oil and gas wastewater to combat dusty roads is needed.


  • DeanMarshall

    Same thing we were told about Tobacco, Thalidomide, Asbestos, Lead for Gasoline additives, and many more Lies!

    • paulroden

      And good old DDT, red dye #2, etc.

      • Dustin

        Dude, give up the radon argument. It’s just ridiculous.

        • paulroden

          Well, where are your facts that exposure to radon is safe? It is the right of the opposition to oppose. This is still a democracy with the First Amendment still in effect. Prove to me that exposure to radon is harmless that the gas industry propagandists put out is true. Unless facts and reasons tell me other wise, I will continue to ask the question and speak up, because it is my right as it is yours to speak up and disagree. I will not be intimidated. “To sin by silence, when one should protest makes cowards of men (and women)” Abraham Lincoln

          • Dustin

            I do feel that radon is adverse to a person’s health at a high enough level, but you seem to infer that burning natural gas from the Marcellus in your home is going to make it worse. In my opinion that is an incredible overreach. The study shows a negligible effect in even a worst case scenario and I think any reasonable person with a good knowledge of chemistry and mathematics would agree with those findings.

  • AlSever

    Can’t believe anyone worries about low lever radioactivity when we spend billions to produce Nukes. I sincerely hope I’m not paying taxes for Nukes that won’t be launched.

    • paulroden

      But you and I are paying taxes to support the insurance for accidents at nuclear power plants through the Price Anderson Act. Electric power utilities were too scared to rely on nuclear power for electricity because of the risk of nuclear accidents, like Three Mile Island, Fukushima, and Chernobyl. Potential contamination of a nuclear core melt down contaminating the area the size of Pennsylvania is a big risk. Special financing, loans and grants from the Federal and State governments for the huge capital investment to build a nuclear plant have also been required and still sought after by the nuclear industry. And billions have been spent and no permanent solution has been found for high level nuclear waste like spent fuel rods, all subsidized by us the taxpayer. Remember the lies of atomic power being “too cheap to meter?” Nuclear power like fracking, are both too dangerous, too expensive and totally unnecessary for our energy needs.

  • pghsheep

    Parks Township!!!

  • Julieann Wozniak

    We can’t trust PayDEP, captured, as it is, and corrupted by the industry it is supposed to protect us from. And then it labels us critics as cranks and terrorists. Independent study, please. Without the cooked data.

  • tom411

    I would guess that most people do not realize that the same radioactive elements found in the shales are also present in granite such as that used in buildings and kitchen countertops. The levels are much the same. If you are really concerned about shale cuttings containing radioactive material, you might want to avoid gardening (soil is weathered rock, often shale), granite countertops (shale is a weathering product of granite), ceramics (made from clays found in shales), glassware, and some foods. Low-sodium salt substitutes often contain enough potassium-40 to double the background count rate of a radiation detector. Since the shale drillers often use potassium chloride as part of the hydraulic fracture treatment, some of the radioactivity is coming directly from salt added at the surface, which is the same salt doctors sometimes recommend for human consumption. The other part of this that people choose to ignore or don’t understand, is that soil is made from these rocks and these radioactive elements don’t decay faster at the surface than they do a mile underground. Just because the rock has weathered to soil does not reduce the radioactivity of the soil constituents. The decay rate is constant. Many of these rocks are also exposed at the surface so rainfall that goes into lakes, streams, and underground aquifers has the same exposure. This issue is really one of people not understanding their natural environment and not realizing that the exposure levels are much the same with or without shale drilling. Yet, some people insist on seeing this only in terms of a vast political conspiracy to cause them harm.

About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »