The New York Times reports that radioactive contaminants in shale gas drilling wastewater are getting into the Susquehanna River and other Pennsylvania waterways because sewage treatment plants there are incapable of removing the contaminants.
The Times report is the latest to highlight risks to public health and the environment from the boom in drilling going on in Pennsylvania and West Virginia for large reserves of natural gas locked deep underground in Marcellus shale formations. High levels of radioactivity have been detected in the wastewater from rigs tapping gas using a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking - or just plain fracking.
The Susquehanna is just one of three rivers mentioned in the Times report where radioactive wastewater may be going. But it's the main tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, and a backup source of drinking water for the Baltimore region.
The Times report says drillers trucked at least half their wastewater to public sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania in 2008 and 2009, while some also was shipped out of state to New York and West Virginia. The sewage plants are incapable of removing enough of the radioactive contaminants to meet drinking water standards, the Times reports.
That's a potential problem because some sewage plant discharges are upriver from other communities' drinking-water intakes. Yet neither the state nor the Environmental Protection Agency is requiring testing for radioactivity at most of the the plants taking the drilling wastewater, the paper reports.
Maryland has yet to issue any permits for fracking for gas in the Marcellus shale deposits in Garrett and Allegany counties. Legislation is pending that would tighten state regulations for such drilling, or would delay any permits for up to two years so more study could be done of the risks and how to prevent harm to ground water or surface waters.
(Drilling rig in Pennsylvnia, 2005 Baltimore Sun photo by Doug Kapustin)