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More Threats From Fracking: Radioactive Waste

Pennsylvania's DEP begins study on radioactivity from oil, gas development; follows other studies showing high levels of radium, boron

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

The controversial drilling practice known as fracking is under renewed scrutiny, this time for producing radioactive waste.

A resident holds up contaminated water from her well, located near a fracking site. (Photo: Public Herald) Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection announced Thursday it was embarking on a year-long study of radioactivity in by-products from oil and natural gas development.

But findings and any action from the study may come too late for people like Portage, Pennsylvania resident Randy Moyer, who is suffering from a flurry of health problems he believes are the result of radiation exposure from his work transporting fracking wastefluids. Pennsylvania's Beaver County Times reports:

Moyer said he began transporting brine, the wastewater from gas wells that have been hydraulically fractured, for a small hauling company in August 2011. He trucked brine from wells to treatment plants and back to wells, and sometimes cleaned out the storage tanks used to hold wastewater on drilling sites. By November 2011, the 49-year-old trucker was too ill to work. He suffered from dizziness, blurred vision, headaches, difficulty breathing, swollen lips and appendages, and a fiery red rash that covered about 50 percent of his body.

“They called it a rash,” he said of the doctors who treated him during his 11 trips to the emergency room. “A rash doesn’t set you on fire.”

Moyer spent most of last year in his Portage apartment, lying on the floor by the open screen door because his skin burned so badly, while doctors scrambled to reach a diagnosis.

Rather than putting the brakes on fracking, the DEP study appears to cement the industry's foothold. John Hurdle writes in the New York Times' Green blog:

Kevin Sunday, a spokesman for the department, said the new study, which covers both conventional oil and gas development and hydraulic fracturing, was not a response to any evidence of excessive radiation levels at drilling sites. Rather, he said, it is a “forward-looking” exercise that anticipates the long-term expansion of the industry.

“We recognize that the industry is here to stay, and we want the public to be protected,” Mr. Sunday said.

A recent study out of Penn State looking at wastewater, also called flowback, from fracking in the Marcellus shale found high levels of radioactive radium and barium.

“Improper disposal of the flowback can lead to unsafe levels of these and other constituents in water, biota and sediment from wells and streams,” the researchers said.

A 2011 study from the U.S. Geological Survey also found that fracking wastewater can be highly radioactive.

Despite numerous studies on fracking's dangers, the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), in a release on its May 2012 report that looked at how Pennsylvania gas companies dealt with the waste from fracking, stated:

All currently available options for dealing with contaminated wastewater from fracking inadequate to protect human health and the environment.