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Thursday, October 3, 2013

PA stream below oil/gas wastewater treatment plant shows elevated levels of salts, metals, radioactivity

A new study of a western Pennsylvania creek shows that disposing of treated wastewater from years of conventional and - more recently, unconventional - oil and gas development has resulted in elevated levels of salts, metals like barium, and dangerous levels of naturally occurring radioactivity.

The study of Blacklick Creek, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, found that creek sediment contained radium in concentrations 200 times above normal, background levels.  Those elevated levels are so high that they “would only be accepted at a licensed radioactive disposal facility.”  This is despite the fact that, according to the study, treatment reduced barium and radium levels by more than ninety percent compared to concentrations in Marcellus Shale produced waters. The study also found elevated levels of salts such as bromide.

The impacts described came from a plant that, according to published reports, stopped treating wastewater from oil and gas drilling two and a half years ago.  But that’s like the blink of an eye – the radioactivity could persist for literally thousands of years. The study authors noted that the radium contamination could accumulate in plants and animals and be transferred through the food chain to humans

Pennsylvania cannot afford to allow yet another legacy of environmental degradation from energy extraction The study vividly illustrates the risks of treating and disposing of the surging volumes of waste from hydraulic fracturing.  It points to the need for a review of current federal and state regulations, for the development of much stronger protections, and for constant, ubiquitous monitoring of water quality.  It also illustrates the need for a serious drive toward eliminating the use of water in unconventional oil and gas development.


  1. I think the study also illustrates that when Pennsylvania regulators and the industry even suspects a problem, it takes swift and decisive action. As you may recall, the gas industry was asked to end the decades old practice of taking waste water to municipal treatment facilities within 30 days of when issues were suspected, and the industry happily complied. Now, there is NO waste water being taken to these plants, the overwhelming majority of water is being recycled and that small amount of water that is treated and discharged must meet the 500PPM TDS fresh drinking water standard (regulations enacted by Mr. Hanger). This is no longer an issue, and I think that it's fair to give the industry at least a little bit of credit for responding without hesitation.

    While our company has not yet eliminated water use, we've been able to cut it by 80% by using liquid nitrogen. A drop in the proverbial bucket, but you have to start somewhere.

    Hope you are well John!


    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Mike.

      That DEP request of 2011 has yet to be turned into a regulation. While the industry has complied, it should be a law. And the data from this study and lack of systematic monitoring suggests that - even meeting TDS requirements - there may still be serious issues with wastewater. Recycling - absolutely a good thing - postpones disposal; it does not eliminate it.

      An 80% reduction of water use is very impressive. That is a story that should be told. I would love to learn more about your company's use of nitrogen (vertical wells, correct?), and hear your thoughts about whether nitrogen and/or other substances like propane or CO2 could be scaled up by the industry.



  2. I have no qualms with what is already standard practice being turned into law.

    Most, if not all of the water treatment facilities that I am aware of (not counting facilities that partially treat the water for reuse) end up with distilled water as the end result, which of course is 100% pure. So the technology exists today, and is continuing to evolve and improve, which is encouraging.

    Yes, we're drilling vertical wells currently. I'm not sure of the logistical impairments that might come about applying this to horizontal wells, but here's an informational PDF from the subcontractor we work with, and much more info is out there if you Google "Nitrogen Foam Fracking".

    Thanks for you interest John, always a pleasure to read and interact.


  3. Thanks very much, Mike. Same here.


  4. Its a pleasure to read this informative blog. Those are really some serious issues for Pennsylvania and it's environmental health. Thanks for sharing the information regarding that study.
    sewage treatment plants

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