Radioactive flowback?

Dear Editor:

On 9/9/14, Governor Tomblin, urged by the energy industry, outlined an “Interpretive Rule” for legislation that already has many alterations favoring hydrofracturing – Sen. Bill 373. (One of these is an option for civil, rather than criminal, penalties.)

Under the new rule, the WV Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP), will allow all above-ground tanks, not deemed “of critical concern,” to be self-inspected – and what the DEP considers less than critical may be far too inclusive. How, for instance, will the many hundreds of hydro-fracturing (fracking) tanks across West Virginia, that separate nerve toxins and extreme carcinogens from brine containing radium, be classed? Highly radioactive for at least 16 centuries, radium spreads easily in water, and even in low doses, causes leukemia and bone cancer.

Amy Bergdale, hydrologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), reported in 2010 that the millions of gallons of waste frack brine (flowback), that must be disposed of daily, contains radioactivity as high as 15,000 pCi/L, while the legal upper limit for industrial waste is 60 pCi/L. A year later, Dr. Elizabeth Rowan, lead scientist for a U.S. Geological Survey study of radium in Marcellus Shale flowback, found it had an average of 2,460 pCi/L.

A Jan. 1, 1999, an Oil & Gas Journal article, written before the current practice that increases flowback TENORM (Technically-Enhanced Naturally-Occurring Radioactive Materials) 10-fold, also notes the problem: Not only the largest gas and oil TENORM waste, it reports, contamination from flowback creates all other such wastes (drill cuttings omitted).

Though the EPA exempts all gas and oil field wastes from regulation, the article goes on, some states regulate a few – but not flowback. According to the Journal, the average disposal cost of regulated gas and oil TENORM wastes, in 1992 dollars, was $544 per 55-gal drum, not including the price of transport, liability, analysis and permits. Thus, if the tremendous volume of flowback were regulated, it seems water-based fracking might not be viable.

This possibility may have influenced DEP Director, Randy Huffman, and DEP’s Office of Oil & Gas (OOG) Director, Jamie Martin, whose employees are often later hired by frackers. In venues including the WV Legislature, National Public Radio and PBS Television, these men have repeatedly said that “radioactivity in West Virginia frack waste is a non-issue.”

Unfortunately, this assertion is matched by action: Since before 2007, Pennsylvania has been sending flowback, too radioactive to be economically disposed under PA laws, to a dump in Lochgelly, WV. Also containing diesel plus toxic frack chemicals, this material was found to be leaking into a creek above the primary water intake for Oak Hill, Fayetteville and Lochgelly. Yet, despite public outcry, the OOG continued to renew the dump’s permit until 2013. The dump owner was then issued a “consent decree” and, though exceeding its 1.5 million-gallon, permitted capacity, the facility is still operating. (for video, go to

The DEP, further, recently testified before the WV House Rules Committee that leachate from WV landfills, where frack drill-cuttings are being placed, has not shown radioactivity above background (less than 5 pCi/L). But Homeland Security (HS), which performs these DEP tests, does not disclose methods and so its findings can’t be checked. But for the last year, the Wetzel Co. Solid Waste Disposal Authority has been sending bi-monthly samples of their Meadowfield Landfill leachate, where HS did its tests, to an ELAP lab for EPA-certified radioactivity testing. Averaging 240 pCi/L, this leachate from landfilled drill-cuttings showed peaks up to 2000 pCi/L.

Now, in a Nov. 1 local FM broadcast, spokespersons for the WV Div. of Highways stated that they will be using frack waste to deice West Virginia roads. Overseen by the DEP, these Highway officials assured us that such toxin-laden, radioactive waste “is just salt water.”


Barbara Daniels

Richwood, WV


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