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Monday, March 14, 2011

The Devil’s Details about Radioisotopes and Other Toxic Contaminants in Marcellus Shale Flowback Fluids

and Their Appearance in Surface Water Sources and Threats to Recreationalists, Private Well Water Users, and Municipal Water Supplies

By Conrad Dan Volz, DrPH, MPH - Director, Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health

In yesterday's FracTracker post, CHEC's data manager Matt Kelso told the tale of two stories regarding radionuclides in Marcellus Shale flowback water and in river water as sampled by the PA DEP. As he said “the devil is in the details” and here are the “devil's details” that put both stories into their proper public health context.
There are without doubt higher levels of radioisotopes in Marcellus Shale flowback fluids than in the fracking fluids, which are injected under high pressure to fracture the shale layer. And in general problems related to naturally occurring radioisotope buildup in the oil and gas industry are well documented. The following is a passage from my expert testimony in the Matter of Delaware River Basin Commission Consolidated Administrative Adjudicatory Hearing on Natural Gas Exploratory Wells; Filed November 23, 2010:

Elevated concentrations of naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM), including 238U, 232Th and their progeny, are found in underground geologic deposits and are often encountered during drilling for oil and gas deposits (Rajaretnam G, and Spitz HB., 2000). Drill cuttings from the Marcellus may be enriched in radium radionuclides and off- gas the radioelement radon. Also, the activity levels and/or availability of naturally occurring radionuclides can be significantly altered by processes in the oil, gas and mineral mining industries (B. Heaton and J. Lambley, 2000). Scales in drilling and process equipment may become enriched in radionuclides producing technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials (TENORM). Exposure to TENORM in drilling equipment may exceed OSHA and other regulatory authority standards for the protection of both human and ecological health. The occurrence of TENORM concentrated through anthropogenic processes in soils at oil and gas wells and facilities represents one of the most challenging issues facing the Canadian and US oil and gas industry today (Saint-Fort et al., 2007). The risk of contamination of surface water and ground water by TENORM accompanies the risk of soil contamination, as TENORM generated may runoff of drilling equipment during rain events or if on the soil surface into surface water sources and/or enter groundwater by transport through the unsaturated zone.
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