Whether wastewater from natural gas drilling sites will be more extensively analyzed for radiation levels still is an unknown, but some Pennsylvania water systems don't plan to wait and will step up radiological tests, officials said this week.

The decision to increase testing on wastewater pumped from shale drilling sites during hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) operations comes as elected officials, regulators and environmental groups question whether wastewater radiation levels are above acceptable limits. The uproar began last weekend after the New York Times launched a series of articles about hydrofracking and an apparent lack of oversight on drilling operations (see Shale Daily, March 1).

Using documents from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the article asserted that routine water testing had not occurred at close to 65 of the state's drinking water intake sites since 2008, and most intake sites had not been inspected for almost six years. DEP's "lax" oversight of state drilling operations was a major focus of the Times story.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) followed with a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, requesting "immediate assistance and immediate action" in responding to the story's implications. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) also requested that EPA and DEP step up inspections. In addition to more inspections, Casey also wants more public disclosure about the state's drinking water.

"No threat to Pennsylvania drinking water should be taken lightly; especially one involving radioactive material," Casey wrote. "Alarming information has been raised that must be fully investigated. I am calling on the DEP and the EPA to increase inspections of Pennsylvania drinking water resources for radioactive material and to account for why sufficient inspections haven't taken place."

If done "correctly," said Casey, "natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania can provide a great economic boost, create jobs and be a source of cleaner domestic energy. I know that Pennsylvania has recently implemented some additional measures to protect our resources and to provide oversight. We have to get this right."

Some wastewater treatment facilities "may not be equipped to adequately treat wastewaters from hydraulic fracturing operations" and "may release still-tainted waters into rivers and other waterways," he wrote. "The contaminants still remaining, including radioactive materials, could find their way into drinking water and aquatic species that may be used for food. It is apparent that there is not enough monitoring to accurately and impartially portray the levels of contaminants that may be present in the wastewaters coming from hydraulic fracturing operations."

EPA does not regulate hydrofracking through the Safe Drinking Water Act; the agency is conducting an extensive study of the drilling process to determine whether more regulations should be mandated. The final results are expected in 2012.

In his letter Casey asserted that "the actions of industry may pose exposure risks of Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (TENORM) via drinking water ingestion. What is not in doubt is that there is a wide range of levels of radioactive materials found in Marcellus Shale gas wells and the produced water from their operations. I request that EPA examine and assert its authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and other applicable laws to ensure the safety of citizens who use water from regulated drinking water sources."

Casey referred to a 2009 EPA study mentioned in the Times story, which asserted "that some Pennsylvania rivers are not cable of sufficiently diluting radioactive wastewater. Why did EPA not make this information available to Pennsylvania regulators? What requirements does EPA currently have that pertain to limiting contaminants in fracking wastewater, and to inform treatment plant operators what is in that water?"

The senator requested that EPA inspect as soon as possible drinking water facilities that are downstream from wastewater discharge sites. In addition, he urged EPA "expedite the process to require testing for TENORM more often. If not, and in the meantime, I urge EPA to issue guidance or advisories within a short time frame in order to inform treatment plant operators of the risks of the presence of TENORM and that they should undertake testing."

In a statement the EPA said agency scientists are studying hydrofracking "to better understand any potential impacts it may have on drinking water resources...While we conduct this study, we will not hesitate to take any steps under the law to protect Americans whose health may be at risk and we remain committed to working with states, who are on the front lines of permitting and regulating natural gas production activities."

DEP on Wednesday had not announced whether it would require water systems in the state to increase drinking water testing.

However, Pennsylvania American Water, which provides water for more than 200,000 customers in Allegheny, Washington and Fayette counties, said it plans to conduct radiological tests and report the results to DEP and EPA for analysis. The system draws water from the Monongahela River, or the "Mon," and it plans to conduct radiological tests at its intakes along the Monongahela, Clarion and Allegheny rivers in the next few weeks.

The Mon, which is the primary water source for Pennsylvania American Water, had its last test for radioactivity in 2008 on finished tap water. The water tests were "well within" federal and state standards, said the company. "We will continue to follow the U.S. EPA and DEP monitoring and sampling guidelines for radium at this time. Pennsylvania American Water's plants on the Mon River continue to surpass all federal and state drinking water standards."

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority also plans to schedule radiation tests on drinking water sources this year, said a spokesperson.