The petroleum and natural gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing is becoming more common in the United States, especially in the East. This method injects water, sand, and chemicals deep into rock formations, creating fractures that allow petroleum and natural gas to migrate toward the drilled out well.
More people are beginning to voice concern over this method of extraction, citing environmental and health concerns. Fracking can contaminate the ground water and deplete fresh water sources. Some seismologists have tied excessive fracking to regional earthquake activity.
Fracking not only damages air quality but also causes local noise pollution. When migrating gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals rise to the surface, they readily contaminate the land and poison people.
Radioactive Marcellus shale being drilled to the surface
These consequences may only be the tip of the iceberg. In fact, waste treatment facilities are beginning to report that drill cuttings from fracking operations contain high levels of radioactive material. The Marcellus shale being drilled out of the Eastern US grounds is reportedly three times more radioactive than other rock layers.
In New York, the water that is coming up during and after the fracking process, known as brine, routinely reads high in radioactivity. “The radioactivity of the brine is as high as 15,000 picocuries per liter,” says Gary Abraham, an environmental lawyer in Western New York. “The background radiation at the surface of the earth in New York is about 1 picocurie per liter.” Gary is now working to block landfills from expanding and accepting this deep shale radiation.
This has prompted the state of Pennsylvania to conduct a study on the radiation level of Marcellus Shale being dug out in the state. The state of West Virginia recently passed a law prohibiting these drill cuttings from entering landfills.
Radium-226 levels high in brine brought back to Earth’s surface
Larry Shilling, the vice president of a New York waste water treatment site, Casella Waste Systems says, “The highest reading we got from any of those four samples was 4.3 picocuries per gram, still under the cleanup standard that [the] EPA set for cleaning up sites. Mr. Shilling believes that the brine is radioactive, but the drill cuttings coming to his treatment site are just “benign.“
As the brine is brought to the Earth’s surface, it primarily brings along with it toxic radium-226. This can be redistributed into surface streams and rivers, ultimately affecting fish and people. Once it’s brought into the waking environment, it’s there for good because its half life is greater than 5,000 years.
Could lead to bone cancer
“Radium is very similar to calcium,” says Avner Vengosh, a geochemist at Duke University. “As a result, it would accumulate in the bone … which would lead to bone cancer.” Vengosh studied a stream near a fracking wastewater plant in Pennsylvania and found radium occurring at 200 times the normal level.
On top of that, the radium that is being introduced to the surface is subjected to a host of landfill acids and chemicals. “Every contaminant that’s being disposed into landfills – the solids – are subject to numerous attacks of acids and different chemicals, different solutions within the landfill,” says Vengosh. “And they’re creating what we call leachate.”
For now, water treatment centers like New York’s Casella Waste Systems are conducting their own quarterly radiation tests on leachate, which is a sort of “garbage tea” that comes from landfills. According to more recent leachate tests at the facility, radium 226 levels are increasing ever so slightly with each measurement.