Marcellus Drilling Brings Radiation Exposures, May Harm Drinking Water

by Duane Nichols on April 3, 2012

Letter from WV-DEP

An article by Tony Rutherford was posted yesterday on the HuntingtonNews.Net so as to analyze the information on radioactive matter in drinking water due to drilling the Marcellus shale for natural gas.  He surveys articles from 2009 and 2010 in the New York Times.  Then he reports:

The EPA document (National Enforcement & Compliance Strategy Information Background for Energy Extraction FY 2010 Draft”) said that “(the) Region III States impacted are those in which Marcellus Shale formation is present: most of Pennsylvania and West Virginia … Hydraulic fracturing is also used for coal  bed methane extraction, a long existing activity in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and possibly Maryland. “Each frac operation requires 3-5 million gallons of frac water, most of which returns to the surface containing dissolved minerals.”  

Of major concern are the Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), radionuclides and frac additive chemicals. The “characterizations of radionuclides and frac additives is incomplete,” the report found “assimilative capacity in many Region 3 surface wells is insufficient for discharge of high TDS loads and the secondary MCL  for TDS for drinking water systems have been exceeded on (a number of) occasion(s) in the Monongahela River basin.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established National Primary Drinking Water Regulations that set mandatory water quality standards for drinking water contaminants. These are enforceable standards called “maximum contaminant levels” or “MCLs”, which are established to protect the public against consumption of drinking water contaminants that present a risk to human health. An MCL is the maximum allowable amount of a contaminant in drinking water which is delivered to the consumer .

In addition, EPA has established National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations that set non-mandatory water quality standards for 15 contaminants. EPA does not enforce these “secondary maximum contaminant levels” or “SMCLs.” They are established only as guidelines to assist public water systems in managing their drinking water for aesthetic considerations, such as taste, color and odor. These contaminants are not considered to present a risk to human health at the SMCL. These include Aluminium at 0.2 mg/L, Iron at 0.3 mg/L, Chloride at 250 mg/L, Sulfate at 250 mg/L, and TDS at 500 mg/L. [Here the milligrams per liter (mg/L) is equivalent to "parts-per-million" (ppm).]

So after considerable study of these issues, it is clear that greater protection is needed for the general public in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, particularly in the Monongahela River watershed and increasingly so in the Ohio River valley, for the protection of ground water and drinking water.  These have been assets of major signficance in the past and of critical importance to our future, as for future generations. We need a strong EPA and an active WV-DEP and PA-DEP if progress on water quality achievement is to take place.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

RD Blakeslee April 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Radon is found in many basements in WV, often from nearby shale. Radon’s release can be accelerated by disturbing of the shale. Water well drilling is one such disturbance. Shoulldn’t there be outrage over drilling water wells?


Luke Unger April 11, 2012 at 10:25 pm

. The “radon-releasing” shale is several THOUSAND feet down. Typical water well drilling depth in West Virginia is a mere 200 feet. I postulate that drilling to 200 feet does not disturb the shale.


Duane Nichols April 3, 2012 at 7:27 pm

DRILL CUTTINGS are the cumulative small pieces of rock that have been cut out of the earth’s strata during the drilling process. These are separated from the drilling mud and must be disposed of, somewhere, usually to a landfill. These cuttings are known to contain some radioactive solids, some more and some less. And even dirty water from the drilling process can contain enough fine particulates to show radioactivity if a detector is present. Seems to me that it is prudent to monitor such liquids and solids for radiation exposures.


RD Blakeslee April 4, 2012 at 8:10 am

I have for some years advocated testing all water wells in Monroe County, WV. Testing done so far has been limited as to what is looked for in the water, but it has already established that most water wells in the county are contaminated. The well on our property, drilled 420 feet deep about 40 years ago, is contaminated. The well is abandoned and we use a cistern.

The testing should be periodic and mandatory for all wells supplying water for human consumption and it should be made increasingly comprehensive as new research brings to light health-hazardous substances previously neglected.


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