November 9, 2009
As New York gears up for a massive expansion of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, state officials have made a potentially troubling discovery about the wastewater created by the process:
And they have yet to say how they'll deal with it.
The information comes from New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, which analyzed 13 samples of wastewater brought thousands of feet to the surface from drilling and found that they contain levels of radium-226, a derivative of uranium, as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink.
The findings, if backed up with more tests, have several implications: The energy industry would likely face stiffer regulations and expenses, and have more trouble finding treatment plants to accept its waste -- if any would at all. Companies would need to license their waste handlers and test their workers for radioactive exposure, and possibly ship waste across the country. And the state would have to sort out how its laws for radioactive waste might apply to drilling and how the waste could impact water supplies and the environment.
The radium-laden wastewater would almost certainly need to be carefully treated by plants capable of filtering out the radioactive substances. Kessy, the Fortuna manager, which operates five of the wells with spiked readings in New York, said the levels are higher than he has seen elsewhere. Treatment plants in Pennsylvania are accepting Fortuna wastewater with much lower levels of radioactivity from the company's wells there, Kessy said, but if plants can't take the higher concentrations, it could be crippling.
"In the event that they were not able to comply due to high radioactivity, they would reject the water," Kessy said. "And if we did not have a viable option for it, our operations would just shut down. There is no other option."
Filtering the water is just one of several problems. Plants that can filter out the radioactive materials are left with a concentrated sludge that has substantially higher radioactivity than the wastewater. Sludge can also collect inside the pipes at well sites, in waste pits and in holding tanks.
Experts who reviewed the concentrations of radioactive metals found in New York's wastewater said the leftover sludge is likely to exceed the legal limits for hazardous waste and would need to be shipped to Idaho or Washington, to some of the only landfills in the country permitted to accept it.
Fortuna's Kessy said that's an acceptable cost of doing business. "We'll be willing, of course, to fund the necessary disposal means," he said.
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