Concerns Over Radioactive Fracking Waste Continue to Mount
By Sharon Kelly
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Amid all the push back to fracking, most of the attention has focused on what drillers put into the ground. The amount of water used. The chemicals that make up energy companies' secret mix. Whether these dangerous chemicals will contaminate our drinking water. But one of the biggest problems of fracking, indeed, the Achilles heel of this innovative drilling technique that is giving fossil fuels a second lease on life, is the waste that comes out of the ground.
How will we handle the massive amounts of toxic waste that each well produces when fracking is used? Will we dump the millions of gallons of wastewater produced from each well into rivers, pass it through sewage treatment plants, allow it to evaporate in open-faced pits, inject it into the ground at special disposal sites?
One of the reasons these questions are so urgent is that this wastewater is often radioactive. When it was revealed in February 2011 that Pennsylvania was not only sending millions of gallons of this waste, sometimes with radium levels 3,000 times the safe level—through sewage treatment plants incapable of correcting radioactivity—which then discharged into rivers, state officials panicked and denied there was cause for concern.
This January, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced that it would undertake a “comprehensive” study of radiation from oil and gas development in the state, home to the most actively drilled parts of the Marcellus shale. At the same time, the agency re-publicized results from tests downstream from wastewater treatment plants, which until 2011 had taken Marcellus wastewater carrying naturally occurring radioactive materials like radium and uranium.
“Most results showed no detectable levels of radioactivity, and the levels that were detectable did not exceed safe drinking water standards,” the agency said in its January statement.
But it turns out those results weren’t the whole story when it comes to the handling of radioactive materials from the state’s fracking boom.
In May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it has reached a settlement with an industrial waste treatment plant which had been discharging natural gas wastewater into a Pennsylvania creek without properly treating it. Environmental regulators discovered high levels of radium around the plant’s discharge pipe. The plant was fined over $80,000 and the operator agreed to make up to $30 million in upgrades before accepting any more Marcellus shale wastewater.
The industrial wastewater plant, Pennsylvania Brine Treatment Josephine, was first studied by Conrad Volz and a team of students at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, who found high levels of contaminants associated with drilling wastewater in Blacklick Creek, part of the Allegheny River watershed, where the plant discharged. Professor Volz’s team did not test for radioactivity, however. In April 2011, the Pennsylvania DEP asked drillers to voluntarily stop trucking wastewater to other plants that discharged into the state’s rivers and streams.
But in June of that year, state officials tested sediments around Pennsylvania Brine Treatment's Josephine plant. Those tests uncovered high levels of radium 226—44 times the drinking water standard—in the plant's discharge pipe.
There's a saying among environmental regulators that "dilution is the solution to pollution" because when contaminants are watered down, levels of toxic materials can fall below safety thresholds. Wastewater from treatment plants is discharged into rivers and streams, so many shale gas boosters argued that even if treatment plants could not remove radioactive materials, the fast-moving water could dilute any resulting contamination. But the tests around the Josephine plant showed that dilution was not sufficient—levels of radium 226 over 65 feet downstream were 66 percent higher than the drinking water standard.
The levels of radioactivity found at the Josephine plant were not high enough to cause any health threat to passersby or to workers, but those levels are high enough that if the radium entered a person's body—whether through an open wound or through drinking contaminated water—there could be a health hazard. Radium also bioaccumulates in fish, meaning that fish in the creek who ingested the radioactive metal could carry higher levels than were in the water.
In February of 2011, several months before those tests were taken, Pennsylvania had drawn national attention for allowing plants that discharged into drinking water sources like rivers and streams to take Marcellus wastewater—which carries higher levels of radioactive materials than waste from other oil and gas formations—without testing at any point to make sure that drinking water standards were not exceeded. Desmog has previously reported on the threat from radionuclides in shale gas waste.
A different round of tests of Pennsylvania rivers near treatment plants had been seized on by former state environmental officials and trumpeted as an indication that wastewater was being properly handled and that state regulations were sufficient to police the industry. But the multi-year Clean Water Act investigation of the Josephine plant, conducted under the watchful eye of the feds, turned up a markedly different result.
Pennsylvania state regulators’ long-run difficulty policing the industry is particularly troubling because right now, the agency charged with protecting the environment in Pennsylvania is in turmoil. The DEP in this state—ground zero for the shale gas boom—is being run, part-time, by a person with no environmental background who is pulling double-duty as the governor’s deputy chief of staff.
Of course, this interim appointment was made because the former secretary, Michael Krancer, stepped down while under investigation by the state’s auditor general for how his office handled water contamination testing related to shale gas.
All of this calls into question the ability of states to regulate fracking booms effectively.
The hazards from shale gas drilling are complex. Another concern related to the high levels of radium in shale wastewater is the radon produced alongside the natural gas. Radon, a highly carcinogenic gas, is produced when radium undergoes radioactive decay and does not burn so it could be released into houses and workplaces by gas-fired appliances.
Earlier this month, kitchen workers in New York City organized a public forum on the gas and the possible risks for the health of New Yorkers if a new pipeline, designed to ship Marcellus gas to major metropolises in the region, is constructed.
Gov. Cuomo (D-NY) very recently announced that he plans to make a decision on the state’s drilling moratorium soon. New York’s current assessment of the dangers from radon is thin, experts have alleged, pointing out that only a few paragraphs are devoted to the lethal gas.
Plans are underway to construct a pipeline that would carry Marcellus gas to the nation's biggest city, New York City. But if that happens, some experts warn of a potential public health crisis. The problem centers around the way that radon breaks down. Radon has a half life of only 3.8 days, meaning that if the gas takes about a week to travel from the wellhead to the consumer, radons levels will have fallen off by 75 percent. But the Spectra pipeline would take Pennsylvania Marcellus gas to New York in less than a day, giving the radon very little time to decay.
New York’s current plan is to test for radon once drilling goes forward, “in order to verify that they do not pose an unanticipated health risk to end-users of the gas,” Elizabeth Glass Geltman of CUNY School of Public Health told a crowded room at the public forum this month. “If you wait for that to happen, the infrastructure will be in place and the argument will be that we can’t change the infrastructure,” she warned.
The science on radon in the gas is evolving—the United State Geological Service (USGS) sampled a tiny handful of wells in a preliminary analysis and the levels they found in that sample were on the low end of the estimates made by experts. But that study only looked at three Marcellus wells, and the USGS said there was a need for further testing. The levels the USGS found were as high as 20 times the levels EPA considers safe for indoor air, so dilution should be plenty to take care of any possible health concerns, but some experts believe other Marcellus wells may carry much higher levels of radon—and have calculated that it could pose a serious public health threat.
In the meantime, some in New York are pressing for change through the legislature. A state bill would require monitoring for radon in all natural gas (not just Marcellus gas). But in neighboring Pennsylvania, the state only plans radon testing “as appropriate” as part of its ongoing radioactivity study.
Time will tell how thorough those tests will be.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
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Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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