By Elena Hight
Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2020
In early 2020, Justin Nobel published an exposé in Rolling Stone on what he called “America’s Radioactive Secret.” This secret is the trillions of gallons of fracking wastewater that pour from oil and gas wells each year and make their way along national highways to injection wells and landfills throughout the country.
While some of this waste comes from the mixture of water, sand, and chemical that is injected thousands of feet into the Earth’s surface to release fossil fuels trapped in hard shale formations, some of it is radioactive brine. Brine is salt water that is trapped, along with oil and gas, in deep aquifers. Depending on the geological formation, this brine often contains heavy metals and Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials, including lead, uranium, and radium among others. While government organizations and industry leaders claim that the radioactivity levels of the brine are insignificant, Nobel says the amount of radium from the Marcellus Shale—a major source of natural gas extracted through fracking which runs beneath Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia—“averages around 9,300 picocuries per liter, but has been recorded as high as 28,500.” These amounts are hundreds to thousands of times above the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s safety standards.
This waste, which contaminates everything and everyone it touches, is either injected back into the ground or dumped in the landfills or waterways of unsuspecting communities. Sometimes, the brine is even sprayed on local roads to prevent icing. Oil and gas workers, already exposed to a number of dangerous chemicals, are often untrained and unprepared to deal with the radioactive waste that they carry, and the scale that builds up on the trucks, pipes, and equipment can expose them to hundreds of thousands of picocuries per liter(pCi/L) of radiation. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Maximum Contaminant Level is 5pCi/L.
Because of exemptions from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, there are not many federal regulations on either the wastewater or the wastewater injection wells, leaving a patchwork of state-by-state regulations (some stringent, some alarmingly lenient). In Pennsylvania, this wastewater has even been dumped into local creeks and rivers with minimal treatment, exposing thousands to contaminated drinking water.
Even before the coronavirus, President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency tried to lift what few policies were in place to protect local waterways from insufficiently treated wastewater, but the latest move to completely suspend enforcement of all environmental laws tops all that. As thousands of people die from the government’s inept response to coronavirus, Trump is putting other lives at risk by allowing big polluters free license to do damage to land, water, and people.