Is New York’s Marcellus Shale Too Hot to Handle?
As New York gears up for a massive expansion of gas drilling in the
Marcellus Shale, state officials have made a potentially troubling
discovery about the wastewater created by the process: It's
radioactive. And they have yet to say how they'll deal with it.
information comes from New York's Department of Environmental
Conservation, which analyzed 13 samples of wastewater brought thousands
of feet to the surface from drilling and found that they contain levels
of radium-226, a derivative of uranium, as high as 267 times the limit
safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the
limit safe for people to drink.
The findings, if backed up with
more tests, have several implications: The energy industry would likely
face stiffer regulations and expenses, and have more trouble finding
treatment plants to accept its waste -- if any would at all. Companies
would need to license their waste handlers and test their workers for
radioactive exposure, and possibly ship waste across the country. And
the state would have to sort out how its laws for radioactive waste
might apply to drilling and how the waste could impact water supplies
and the environment.
What is less clear is how the wastewater
may affect the health of New Yorkers, since the danger depends on how
much radiation people are exposed to and how they are exposed to it.
Radium is known to cause bone, liver and breast cancers, and the EPA
publishes exposure guidelines for it, but there is still disagreement
over exactly how dangerous low-level doses can be to workers who handle
it, or to the public.
The DEC has yet to address any of these
questions. But New York's Health Department raised concerns about the
amount of radioactive materials in the wastewater in a confidential
letter to the DEC's oil and gas regulators in July.
and disposal of this wastewater could be a public health concern," DOH
officials said in the letter, which was obtained by ProPublica. "The
issues raised are not trivial, but are also not insurmountable."
letter warned that the state may have difficulty disposing of the
drilling waste, that thorough testing will be needed at water treatment
plants, and that workers may need to be monitored for radiation as much
as they might be at nuclear facilities.
officials declined to comment on the letter. The DEC sent an e-mail
response to questions about the radioactivity stating that
"concentrations are generally not a problem for water discharges, or in
solid waste streams" in New York state. But the agency did not directly
address the radioactivity levels, which were disclosed in the
appendices of the agency's environmental review of gas drilling in the
Marcellus Shale, released Sept. 30.
The review did not calculate
how much radioactivity people may be exposed to, even though such
calculations are routinely completed by scientists studying radiation
exposure. Yet the review concluded that radiation levels were "very
low" and that the wastewater "does not present a risk to workers." DEC
officials declined to explain how they reached this conclusion.
the review pointed to a possible need for radioactive licensing and
disposal for certain materials, and it looked at other states with laws
aimed at radioactive waste from drilling, the DEC said there is no
precedent for examining how these radioactive materials might affect
the environment when brought to the surface at the volumes and scale
expected in New York. And it said that more study is needed before the
DEC can lay out precise plans to deal with the waste.
comments to ProPublica, the DEC emphasized that the environmental
review proposes testing all wastewater for radioactivity before it is
allowed to leave the well site, and said that the volumes of brine
water, which contain most of the radioactivity detected, would be far
less than the volumes of fluid from hydraulic fracturing that are
removed from the well.
What scientists call naturally occurring
radioactive materials -- known by the acronym NORM -- are common in oil
and gas drilling waste, and especially in brine, the dirty water that
has been soaking in the shale for centuries. Radium, a potent
carcinogen, is among the most dangerous of these metals because it
gives off radon gas, accumulates in plants and vegetables and takes
1,600 years to decay. Geologists say radioactivity levels can vary
across the Marcellus, but the tests taken so far suggest the amount of
radioactive material measured in New York is far higher than in many
The state took its 13 samples -- 11 of which
significantly exceeded legal limits -- between October 2008 and April
2009. The DEC did not respond to questions about whether additional
sampling has begun or whether the state would begin issuing drilling
permits before the radioactivity issues are resolved. The DEC told
ProPublica it did not know where the wastewater would be treated.
got to go somewhere," said Theodore Adams, a radiation remediation and
water treatment consultant with 30 years of experience with radioactive
waste. "It's not going to just go away."
A Vague Threat
the health threat that radioactive material poses to workers and to the
public is complicated. Measuring human exposure -- which is quantified
in doses of millirems per year -- from radiation is notoriously
difficult, in part because it depends on variables like whether objects
interfere with radiation, or how sustained exposure is over long
periods of time.
Gas industry workers, for example, would almost
certainly face an increased risk of cancer if they worked in a confined
space where radon gas, a leading cause of lung cancer and a derivative
of radium, can collect to dangerous levels. They would also be at risk
if they somehow swallowed or breathed fumes from the radioactive
wastewater, or handled the concentrated materials regularly for 20
years. But without these types of intensive or confined exposures, the
materials may be less dangerous, making it difficult to discern effects
on workers' health, experts say.
People absorb radioactivity in
their daily routines, complicating health assessments. Eighty percent
of human radioactivity exposure comes from natural sources, according
to the EPA. Everything from granite countertops to a pile of playground
dirt can emit radioactivity that is higher than the EPA, which
regulates based on a theory that zero exposure is best, may prefer.
start with the world where you and I are getting an exposure from the
sun, from the soil we walk on, from the brick in our house that on
average is about 400 millirems a year -- which is dangerous," said Tom
Lenhart, a former member of the federal-state Interagency Steering
Committee on Radiation Standards. "The EPA would never allow that kind
of exposure. So you are starting from a baseline of dangerous exposure,
and this is what makes regulating it a nightmare."
estimates that Americans are exposed to about 300 to 360 millirems per
year, including routine artificial exposures like getting an X-ray or
flying in an airplane. Each multiple of this "background level" denotes
a proportional increase in the chance of getting cancer.
natural radioactivity of the Marcellus Shale has caused concern since
the mid-1980s, when high levels of radon gas were found in the
basements of homes in Marcellus, a town in upstate New York, where the
shale reaches the surface. The question has long been, if the Marcellus
can cause radioactive gas to seep into people's basements, how much
radioactivity might be infused into the water left over from drilling?
Add to that the question of how much human exposure can be expected
from the radiation detected at some Marcellus drilling sites.
its environmental review, the state said it couldn't answer those
questions because exposure depends on so many variables and because the
units of measurement for human exposure and concentrations in water are
incompatible. There is "no simple or universally accepted equivalence
between these units," the DEC wrote in its environmental review.
Rick Kessy, operations manager for Fortuna Energy, a subsidiary of
Canadian Talisman Energy and the largest gas producer in New York, says
his company has assessed worker exposure at two of the company's well
sites in Pennsylvania, where it found no serious risk.
U.S. Department of Energy expert who specializes in such exposure
conversions said an analysis in New York should be "very easy to do."
they know the concentrations and they know the exposure pathways it
should be straightforward to calculate that," said Charley Yu, who runs
the national computer dose modeling program at Argonne National Labs
for the U.S. Department of Energy.
In fact, New York's DEC used Yu's government modeling program, called RESRAD, in a 1999 study 
to establish radioactivity exposure risks for oilfield brine spread on
roads, a common disposal practice. Its brine samples in that case
contained far less radium than the Marcellus water. It laid out a
simple scenario, assuming a person walked on the road for two hours a
day over 20 years and a fixed quantity of brine was spread there. That
study found no threat to human health.
No such analysis was included in the state's recent supplemental environmental impact statement.
Few Disposal Options
this would be of substantially less concern if New York were like most
of the other states that produce some radioactive waste during natural
gas drilling. In those states, the waste is re-injected underground.
But in New York, injection disposal wells are uncommon, and those that
do exist aren't licensed to receive radioactive waste or Marcellus
Shale wastewater, according to the EPA. Instead, most drilling
wastewater is treated by municipal or industrial water treatment plants
and discharged back into public waterways.
wastewater would almost certainly need to be carefully treated by
plants capable of filtering out the radioactive substances. Kessy, the
Fortuna manager, which operates five of the wells with spiked readings
in New York, said the levels are higher than he has seen elsewhere.
Treatment plants in Pennsylvania are accepting Fortuna wastewater with
much lower levels of radioactivity from the company's wells there,
Kessy said, but if plants can't take the higher concentrations, it
could be crippling.
"In the event that they were not able to
comply due to high radioactivity, they would reject the water," Kessy
said. "And if we did not have a viable option for it, our operations
would just shut down. There is no other option."
It is not clear which treatment plants, if any in New York, are capable of handling such material.
spokesman Yancey Roy said that "there are currently no facilities
specifically designated for treating them." He added that the state
depends on the drilling companies to make sure there is a legal
treatment option for the water, and then reviews those plans.
department has not received any permit submissions from the well
operators that include details about treatment options for the brine
containing NORM," he said. "So we do not know what treatment options
are being considered or how effective NORM removal will be."
contacted several plant managers in central New York who said they
could not take the waste or were not familiar with state regulations.
are not set up to take radioactive substances," said Patricia Pastella,
commissioner of the Onondaga County Department of Water Environment
Protection, which operates the Metropolitan plant in Syracuse, N.Y. "It
does present a problem with disposal."
Filtering the water is
just one of several problems. Plants that can filter out the
radioactive materials are left with a concentrated sludge that has
substantially higher radioactivity than the wastewater. Sludge can also
collect inside the pipes at well sites, in waste pits and in holding
Federal laws don't directly address naturally occurring
radioactivity, and the oil and gas industry is exempt from federal laws
dictating handling of toxic waste, leaving the burden on New York
state. New York has laws governing radioactive materials, but the
state's drilling plans don't specify when they would apply.
who reviewed the concentrations of radioactive metals found in New
York's wastewater said the leftover sludge is likely to exceed the
legal limits for hazardous waste and would need to be shipped to Idaho
or Washington, to some of the only landfills in the country permitted
to accept it.
Fortuna's Kessy said that's an acceptable cost of
doing business. "We'll be willing, of course, to fund the necessary
disposal means," he said.
The same may be required of some of
the equipment used in drilling, which can eventually emit much higher
levels of radiation than the water itself. Louisiana, for example,
began regulating radioactive materials after it found radioactive build-up in pipes  dumped in scrap yards and in the steel used to build schoolyard bleachers.
But the levels in that state were just one-eighth of those measured so far in New York.
don't believe anyone has taken a look, seriously, at what the
unintended consequences are to dealing with these kinds of materials,"
said Theodore Adams, the radioactive waste disposal consultant. "It's a
unique animal -- a unique disposal -- and depending on where it is
located and who is receiving it, it could have an impact."
ProPublica's Sabrina Shankman contributed reporting to this article.