Debate surrounding the health effects of hydraulic fracturing tends to center around a few figurehead issues. The potential for oil spills from wells or pipelines, air and noise pollution from drilling activities and contamination of underground drinking water supplies often dominate the conversation, prompting ill-informed standoffs between a public concerned for its safety and regulators trying to manage a burgeoning but lucrative industry.
Easily overlooked in the fracas is a topic more at home in discussions of the nuclear energy industry: the storage of radioactive materials. Rapidly increasing shale development is creating more and more irradiated byproducts, and energy companies are facing mounting challenges in properly disposing of them.
The Marcellus shale formed in the Devonian Period, when limbed “fishapods” like these roamed the seas. Graphic by Dave Souza, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia
The fracking process is designed to reach shale formations deep below the earth’s surface. The pockets of crude oil and natural gas trapped within are mostly comprised of the decayed bodies of sea creatures that lived millions of years ago. This means shale formations tend to exist alongside reservoirs of extremely salty water and radioactive minerals. In order to access and gather the petroleum, drillers have to break through and carry a lot of this radioactive matter back to the surface.
The irradiated matter is known as TENORM – Technologically-Enhanced, Naturally-Occurring Radioactive Material. Unlike radioactive material created by human activity, such as nuclear fission and fusion, it occurs naturally but is brought into potentially hazardous proximity by human activity.
Typical radionuclides found in shale include uranium, thorium, radium and lead. They have been identified since the 1930s and are commonly used to survey for potential drill sites.
TENORM from oil and gas drilling comes in many forms. Broken bits of mineral known as “drill cuttings” are created when a well’s hole is bored. Water that comes from the well, whether it’s pumped in or from a reservoir, picks up dissolved minerals on its way to the surface and is called “brine.” It can also create a muddy mix of saltwater and minerals called “sludge” or leave a residue called “mineral scale” on equipment.
In small doses, TENORM is manageable. Irradiated water can be treated to remove solid contaminants and reused for fracking. Solid radioactive material is encased in cement and stored in a landfill.
The problem is, thanks to the shale boom the country is no longer facing TENORM in small doses. Production totals, rig counts and energy profits are all at record levels and growing. The more we drill, the more radioactive matter we bring to the surface, and the less idea we have of what to do with it.
This magnified sample shows the diverse mineral makeup of drill cuttings. Image by Mudgineer CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia
Pennsylvania has encountered a number of incidents recently in attempting to dispose of waste properly. Gas drilling there occurs in the Marcellus shale, which is unusually radioactive at about three times the amount of comparable formations. Last May a shipment of sludge was rejected by the Arden Landfill for exceeding the state’s safety level for radioactivity, forcing energy company Range Resources to have it sent to West Virginia’s Meadow Landfill for disposal. In response, West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection barred the state from taking any further shipments, pending an investigation that is still ongoing.
Earlier this month, a similar occurrence saw radioactive water and sludge from a Range Resources impoundment sent to Michigan’s Wayne Disposal. Once again, state officials responded by barring future shipments. State Senator Rick Jones has already proposed legislation to make the order law.
Other nearby states, including Connecticut and New Jersey, have similar bans on waste storage.