Feds and states not taking radioactivity from fracking seriously, environmental group says

Ohio has even considered loosening regulations

By: - July 27, 2021 12:40 am

Pumpjacks on the horizon underneath a partly cloudy beautiful sky. These pieces of equipment are crucial to oil field and fracking operations. Getty Images.

Fracking might be an economic boon to some landowners in depressed sections of Eastern Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and much of West Virginia. But federal and state officials are doing little to protect citizens from the radiation hazards posed by the process, a new report says.

The Marcellus Shale formation is the scene of heavy fracking. The activity is known to produce radioactive waste, but a new report says federal and state authorities are doing little to regulate it.
– United States Geological Survey

For example, a solution containing substances such as Radium-226 in concentrations 300 times federal drinking water standards is spread on Ohio roads and there are no federal or state regulations to stop the practice, the report by the Natural Resources Defence Council says. 

After their application to icy roads, it’s not hard to see how toxic substances can run off into streams. From there, who knows?

Titled “A Hot Fracking Mess: How the Lack of Regulation of Oil and Gas Production Leads to Radioactive Waste in Our Water, Air, and Communities,” the report details the many ways that fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing,” produces toxins.

The practice of using water and chemicals to blast through rock formations to get to previously inaccessible fossil fuels is not completely negative from an environmental standpoint. It’s made cleaner-burning natural gas a cheaper energy source than coal and some environmentalists have praised it as a bridge fuel while cleaner alternatives are developed in the race against global warming. 

But, the NRDC report notes, state and federal regulators have taken a pass on protecting against fracking’s potential ill-effects — particularly for people living near fracking pads.

“Unfortunately, without adequate regulations, there is scant industry monitoring data or information about violations, so the full scope of health impacts facing nearby residents or workers from (toxic substance) exposure remains unclear,” it says.

A number of radioactive elements are naturally present in the Earth, often locked far down where they don’t threaten human health. 

But fracking can blast known toxins such as radium, lead and polonium out of rock formations. Then they can be brought back to the surface in drill cuttings, wastewater and contaminated pipes.

It also can produce toxic air, Inside Climate News reported in 2014.

But regulators have seemed to go out of their way to avoid tracking toxic waste — even from conventional drilling long before the fracking revolution, the NRDC report says.

“In 1980, Congress amended (the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act) to temporarily exempt most wastes associated with oil and gas (drilling) from these hazardous-waste regulations, pending the completion of an (Environmental Protection Agency) study,” it says. “The EPA completed the study in 1988. It found that (drilling) wastes contain toxic substances — some of them at high levels — that endanger both human health and the environment. Uranium, for instance, was detected at ‘levels that exceed 100 times EPA’s health-based standards.'”

Nevertheless, the report said, the EPA determined that regulation of drilling wastes was unwarranted — a determination that stands today.

Similar regulatory gaps persist under other federal laws and agencies that could be used to do something, including: the Atomic Energy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the report said.

Things don’t seem much better on the state level.

For example, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia impinge on the oil-and-gas-rich Marcellus Shale, which is heavily fracked. 

The states allow landfills to accept fracking waste. In Pennsylvania, water leaching out must be tested, but not for radionuclides. Ohio doesn’t require that water leaching out from drilling waste be tested, the report said. 

West Virginia is the only one of the three that requires leachate to be tested for radioactive waste from fracking, the report said.

In fact, it said the Buckeye State seems to be going backward when it comes to monitoring such wastes and protecting citizens.

It said that in 2017 the state’s Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management commissioned an study of radioactive content in AquaSalina, “a commercial road deicing product used in Ohio and made from oil and gas wastewater.” 

The study looked at the wastewater used to make the deicng product as well as the product itself “and found that its average radioactivity exceeded federal drinking water standards for combined radium-226 and radium-228 ‘by a factor of 300’” and it exceeded state standards for discharge in rivers in streams as well.

Even so, Ohio dumped a million gallons of AquaSalina on its roads in the winter of 2017-18 and another 600,000 gallons in the winter of 2018-19, the report said.

The legislature even considered a bill that would further weaken rules regarding the reuse of oil and gas wastewater.

“While the legislation did not pass, it may be reconsidered in the future,” the report said. 

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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.

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