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By David Kowalski

The Marcellus Shale contains radioactive materials, including radium and radon. Normally, the radioactive material is safely buried deep underground. However, shale gas drilling and fracking bring radioactivity in solids and liquid wastewater to the surface, posing a risk to public health if not properly managed.

Radium and radon can cause cancer if ingested or inhaled. Radium causes leukemia and bone cancer. Radon gas is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.

In 2009, the state Department of Environmental Conservation found radium levels in Marcellus Shale wastewater that are thousands of times greater than that allowed in drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency, and up to 267 times the limit for safe discharge into the environment.

Exemptions from key federal regulations allow gas industry solid and liquid waste to pass as “non-hazardous.” However, solid drilling waste from Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale has triggered radiation alarms at landfills. This waste has been imported by New York landfills. Liquid leachate from landfills is sent to waste treatment plants unequipped to monitor or remove radioactive materials, threatening drinking water sources.

Recently, a peer-reviewed scientific paper reported radium levels of 200 times background in Pennsylvania’s Blacklick Creek sediments downstream of a fracking wastewater treatment plant. The gas industry has not identified methods to clean up the wastewater and safely dispose of the radioactive material removed.

The DEC permits the spreading of salty wastewater (brine) on roads for de-icing, dust control and road stabilization as well as on land for dust control. However, because of the possible presence of radioactive materials, such applications of wastewater should not be permitted in the absence of testing for radioactive materials.

Radium and radon in waste from shale gas drilling and fracking pose a serious threat to public health, although the cancers induced can take years to develop. In light of lax monitoring of radioactivity by the industry and the states, as well as the absence of safe methods for waste treatment and disposal, the public should demand that the State Legislature pass laws banning this hazardous waste in order to protect our water, land, air and health.

Public input is more important than ever given heavy campaign contributions to state legislators from the natural gas industry.

David Kowalski, Ph.D., is a retired cancer researcher and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists.