A Toxic Topic

Whether it’s radioactivity or perceptions of politics, the Marcellus Shale is center stage in Pennsylvania
Rate this item
(0 votes)

There is no doubt about it. The Marcellus Shale is radioactive, in every sense of the word. In the literal sense of the word, geologists and drillers have long known that each shale deposit has its own radioactive signature.

In fact, they have often measured that radiation — from uranium, thorium, radium 226 and radium 228 — and used it to chart the vast underground deposits of shale for the simple reason that the higher the radiation levels, the greater the likelihood that those deposits will yield significant amounts of gas.

Comparatively speaking, the Marcellus is, according to Penn State Professor of Geology Terry Engelder, particularly radioactive shale. But even so, Engelder has said, the radioactive elements in the shale are in such low concentrations that they pose no significant health risk — no more, for example, than granite used for countertops, which also contains radioactive materials.

What’s more, Engelder has argued, the amount of radioactive material churned up from the depths of the Marcellus in the form of “cuttings” — small shards of shale pulled to the surface by the drilling itself — is not only low in radiation but comes back in small enough quantities at each well that it can be safely handled and disposed of by regulated facilities. When it comes to contamination of water released by the drilling process, there too, Engelder has said, the risk appears to be manageable. The vast majority of the water released by drilling — the hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemically treated water pumped into the shale to shatter it and release the gas in the process known as hydraulic fracturing — spends so little time underground, and is under such intense pressure, that the risk of contamination is small. And the naturally occurring water in the rock, which does contain radioactive elements along with a host of other toxins, metals and salts, is produced in such small quantities over such a long period of time — it can continue to be produced for decades — that it is manageable as well.

In fact, even some of the most vocal critics of the speed with which the Marcellus is being developed contend that radioactivity is probably one of the least pressing problems the state is facing as the Marcellus boom expands. “If I were to bet on this, I’d bet that it’s not going to be a problem,” said Conrad Dan Volz, former director of the center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh, noting that even if some radiation were to be released, it would likely be diluted to a level well within standards considered safe after being pumped into massive waterways such as the Monongahela or the Susquehanna. Volz said he is far more concerned about the levels of salts, as well as barium, strontium, and bromides, that he believes are continuing to be produced by the Marcellus and other industries and are being inadequately treated before being discharged into the state’s waterways, a charge both the state Department of Environmental Protection and the industry dispute. But for many in the state and beyond, such assurances offer little comfort. As early as 2009, ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news agency, published a report sounding the alarm about radioactive waste generated by the activity in the Marcellus and raising questions about whether regulators were prepared to handle it. And in February, the New York Times triggered a firestorm when it released the results of its three-​month study of some 179 gas wells in the Marcellus and concluded that in 116 of them, wastewater was contaminated with levels of radiation far above the legal limit, in some cases as high as 1,000 times the level considered safe. The newspaper cited what it described as lax oversight by both the DEP and the federal Environmental Protection Agency for the problem.

Almost immediately, the industry, the state, and even some environmentalists argued that the newspaper had exaggerated the danger and had all but ignored what they maintained were great strides that the state has made over the past two years to regulate the industry.

Noting that the industry now treats and recycles up to 90 percent of the wastewater it generates, Kathryn Klaber of the Marcellus Shale Coalition insisted that gas drillers had already taken steps to monitor and dramatically reduce the amount of radioactive materials and other dangerous elements in its wastewater. Jan Jarrett, president of Penn Future, an environmental advocacy group, argued that the Times piece had overlooked a series of sweeping reforms that had been put in place to monitor and regulate wastewater discharges from the Marcellus. “Some of that information in the Times was sort of outdated,” she said, though she credited the paper with raising the issue of radiation again and said she hoped it would spur a drive for regulations requiring “routine testing of water for radiation” at the spots along the state’s waterways where much of Pennsylvania’s drinking water originates.

But no one was more incensed by the allegations that lax oversight had allowed dangerous levels of radiation potentially to seep into the water supply than the man who was responsible for establishing and enforcing those regulations: former DEP Secretary John Hanger. In a series of fiery posts on his blog, in a letter to the New York Times, and in interviews with Pittsburgh Quarterly, Hanger angrily denounced the Times piece as “dishonest” and described it as “a fictional narrative.”

Before he left office in January, Hanger says, the agency dramatically expanded the number of regulators it has in the field — “we went from 88 to 200-​plus” — and took stiff action where necessary to penalize drillers when they violated the regulations. The Times, he said, failed to report that the agency had issued 1,400 notices of violations for a variety of offenses between January 2008 and June 2010. Nor, he said, did the Times give him credit for taking swift action when levels of salts and other chemicals spiked in the Monongahela River in the summer of 2008, a development that authorities said may have been partially related to drilling activity. The former secretary responded by issuing an emergency order requiring municipal sewer authorities that were not equipped to strip out total dissolved solids from their effluent to “to cut any drilling waste load that they were taking by 95 percent,” a move that is widely credited with dramatically reducing the levels of contaminants in the river.

But he was most outraged by what he took as the suggestion in the story that he was caught flat-​footed by the issue of radiation risks posed by the Marcellus. Hanger said he had aggressively questioned his point man at the DEP’s Office of Radiation Protection and had received assurances that there was no significant danger. “I asked specifically whether the produced water or any of this wastewater posed a threat to those at the drill site [and] the answer was no,” Hanger said. “I asked specifically whether it posed a threat to anybody handling the water in the transport process, the drivers specifically. The answer was no. I asked if it would pose a threat to the plant operators where it would be taken for treatment and the answer was no. I asked if it posed a threat to the public and the answer was no.”

The way Hanger saw it, the story had unfairly attacked him. It had raised questions about whether he and the state agency he had run were asleep at the switch while dangerous radiation slipped into the water supply. “The only response that could definitively answer that question,” he said, “is to just test the water at the drinking source.”

Less than a week later — in the beginning of March — he got his wish. Both the Pennsylvania American Water Company and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority announced they would begin testing for radiation at intakes for drinking water at various locations. The results of those tests were not available at this writing. But the DEP, which had been testing at locations along seven rivers in the state since November 2010, all upstream from intakes for drinking water supplies, did release its findings. According to DEP spokeswoman Katherine Gresh, the DEP found that radiation levels were at, or in some cases below, the normal naturally occurring radiation levels in those rivers, and below the federal safe drinking water standard of 5 picocuries per liter.

Both the DEP and the EPA say that they plan to continue and expand testing for radiation.

A few days after the DEP’s announcement, the debate over the potential threat of radiation from the Marcellus was washed from the front pages by a larger and more pressing nuclear danger when a massive 9.0 earthquake and 30-​foot-​tall tsunami crashed ashore in Japan. The disaster killed more than 1,800 people, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and damaged six of the country’s nuclear reactors, causing a partial meltdown and releasing high, though not immediately life-​threatening, levels of radiation into the atmosphere that were detected in minute amounts as far away as the west coast of the U.S. and feared as far away as the east coast.

It remains to be seen whether the disaster in Japan will be, as many analysts predict, a nail in the coffin of the nuclear industry. Or will the anxiety pass, leading to the restoration of the promise of nuclear energy as a cleaner fuel without the climate-​altering aspects of fossil fuel?

In a March 22 opinion piece in the New York Times, the same paper that had raised the alarm about radioactive waste in the Marcellus less than a month earlier, author Jad Mouawad said that natural gas as a commodity would likely benefit mightily from the radiation woes in Japan. “Given the growing concerns about nuclear power and the constraints on carbon emissions, one bank, Société Générale, called natural gas the fuel of ‘no choice,’ ” Mouawad wrote.

But those who have watched the developments in the Marcellus for the past few years say that, if the natural gas industry is to reap that benefit, it must not only address the issue of potential contamination by chemicals as well as radium and uranium — the literal radioactivity that comes from the Marcellus Shale — it must also find a way to deal with the deep-​seated mistrust that exists throughout the state, a mistrust that extends not just to the industry, but to state and federal government, and makes the development of the Marcellus figuratively radioactive as well.

There are no Geiger counters that can accurately measure that mistrust. But there are some indications of how deep it is and how virulent it can be. Take for example, the outcry that followed Gov. Tom Corbett’s decision to establish a Marcellus Shale Committee, a panel of experts from industry, academia and the environmental community, charged with developing a comprehensive strategy to encourage the development of the Marcellus — safely, Corbett insisted — and to maximize the number of jobs it creates in the state. He then named his secretary-​designate of the Department of Community and Economic Development, C. Alan Walker, a former coal company executive who had donated $184,000 to Corbett’s campaign, as the administration’s point man on the Marcellus. The governor had already come under fire for his proposed budget, which slashed spending, including making deep cuts in education, while sticking to his campaign promise to protect the burgeoning drilling industry from a severance tax. But it was the disclosure in a story by ProPublica that a single line in the governor’s budget appeared to give Walker, his former coal executive benefactor and new DCED secretary, unprecedented authority over all aspects of the regulation of the industry, including authority over the actions of the DEP, that stirred the greatest controversy. The line read simply that the director had the authority to “expedite any permit or action pending in any agency where the creation of jobs may be impacted.”

Over the next several days, newspaper editorial pages and at least one national news program ran stories wondering aloud whether the new governor had effectively stripped the DEP of its ability to police the development of the Marcellus. As it turns out, those fears were unfounded. Also tucked into the budget was another line that made it clear that the DEP had the authority to act independently. As DCED spokesman Steven Kratz put it, “the secretary of DCED is re-​empowered to assist job-​creating businesses in navigating government processes, ensuring red tape does not hold up a business’s ability to create jobs in the commonwealth… the DCED secretary only has the ability to ensure permits are moving in a timely and reasonable manner and does not have the ability to effect whether or not the permit is issued or the ability to alter any statutes or regulations.”

Privately, officials at both the DEP and the DCED marveled at how fast the narrative spread that the new administration was actively working to hamstring its own environmental agency in an effort to serve the interests of drillers. But though they declined to be quoted, they also acknowledged that in the climate of mistrust and fear surrounding the Marcellus, it was, perhaps, something they should have expected.

Overcoming that mistrust is going to be a monumental undertaking, says one guy who knows a little something about the subject. “Credibility is a precious thing, and it’s a very difficult quality to maintain,” says Hanger. “I think in the minds of some people… large political donations to the governor have created an added credibility challenge… I wish him a lot of success, but I think a lot of people look at those donations from the gas industry to the governor and reach some pretty ugly conclusions.”

Reducing that radioactive mistrust is not, Hanger says, an insurmountable challenge, any more than monitoring the literal radiation is. But it is not going to be easy. The public, conditioned to suspect that politicians are often willing to act in the best interest of their corporate donors rather than in the interest of the people they serve, is going to demand proof that the new administration is prepared to stand up to the industry when necessary. “I think this governor and his new secretary have an added burden to be professional and independent… and let the chips fall where they may,” Hanger said. It wouldn’t hurt, he added, for the public to see the DEP call the industry on the carpet when circumstances warrant it.

Truthfully,” he added, “it probably behooves them for a few chips to hopefully fall not on the side of the industry.”

Seamus McGraw

Seamus is a regular contributor to many publications including Court TV’s Crime Library, Penthouse, Reader’s Digest, Stuff magazine, Spin and The Forward. He has won a number of journalism awards and is currently working on a comic novel set in Pennsylvania’s coal country. He lives in the woods of northeastern Pennsylvania with his wife, Kren, and four children, Miriam, Yona, Seneca and Liam.

Explore Related Stories:

Close Window Welcome to Pittsburgh Quarterly
Keep up with the latest

Sign up for our Newsletter, Pittsburgh Quarterly This Week.

We’ll keep in touch, but only when we think there’s something worth sharing. To receive exclusive Pittsburgh Quarterly news and stories, please fill out the form below. Be sure to check your email for a link to confirm your subscription!

View past newsletters here.

Don’t miss a story! Sign up for our newsletter to receive award-​winning journalism in your inbox.

Please let us know your name.
Invalid Input
Please let us know your email address.
Invalid Input