A Pennsylvania industrial wastewater treatment plant has been illegally accepting oil and gas wastewater and polluting the Allegheny river with radioactive waste and other pollutants, according Clean Water Action, which announced today that it is suing the plant.
State officials also discovered that the sediments immediately downstream from the plant were tainted with high levels of radium-226, radium-228 and uranium. Those particular radioactive elements are known to be found at especially high levels in wastewater from Marcellus shale gas drilling and fracking, and state regulators have warned that the radioactive materials would tend to accumulate in river sediment downstream from plants accepting Marcellus waste.
“To us, that says that they are discharging Marcellus Shale wastewater, although no one admits to sending it to them,” said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania state director for Clean Water Action.
The amount of radioactivity found in the Allegheny riverbed is striking. Sediments just downstream of the Waste Treatment Corporation’s discharge pipe contained over 50 picocuries per gram (pCi/g) of radium-226, state records show. To put that number in rough context, the levels in found in the Allegheny are 10 times those that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires the surface soil at cleaned-up uranium mining sites to achieve.
Most of the radioactive wastes associated with fracking are too weak to cause harm to people unless they are breathed in, drank or eaten, since the alpha and beta radioactivity they primarily give off is too weak to get past people’s skin. But at the levels discovered by state regulators, the dirt from the Allegheny’s riverbed could potentially be radioactive enough to cause harm to people who are simply near it.
Once-confidential oil and gas industry studies have also pointed to another risk from disposing of radioactive materials from drilling or fracking in waterways—the risk to fish and aquatic life like crustaceans and mollusks. Radium bioaccumulates in fish, meaning that the more a fish ingests contaminated water or soil over its lifetime, the more radium it will contain. If people eat those fish, those radioactive materials consumed along with the fish can do harm to people’s internal organs.