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Duke Questions Radioactive Chemicals in Marcellus

Researchers from Duke University have published another controversial study about the Marcellus Shale, this time taking aim at a wastewater treatment plant in western Pennsylvania after finding radioactive chemicals in an adjacent creek bed.

However, Aquatech International Corp., which owns the Josephine plant in Indiana County, said the facility stopped accepting wastewater from unconventional drilling in 2011, in accordance with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). A DEP official also said the Duke study was misleading, especially in light of a consent order agreement (COA) the agency forged with Aquatech in May.

Researchers at the Earth and Ocean Sciences Division at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment conducted the study of Blacklick Creek from August 2010 to November 2012. Their findings are published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

According to the abstract, "the discharge of the effluent from the [Josephine] facility increased downstream concentrations of chloride and bromide above background levels." But it also found barium and radium levels were more than 90% lower in the discharged effluent, compared to concentrations found in pre-treated wastewater. Nonetheless, radium-226 levels in stream sediments at the point of discharge were about 200 times greater than upstream and background sediments and above radioactive waste disposal threshold regulations, posing potential environmental risks of radium bioaccumulation in localized areas of shale gas wastewater disposal."

Duke researchers said sediments samples taken from the discharge point in Blacklick Creek contained 544-8,759 becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg) of radium-226. By comparison, samples taken upstream and on background contained 22-44 Bq/kg.

In April 2011, the DEP asked operators in the Marcellus to stop delivering unconventional wastewater to 15 treatment facilities in the state, including the Josephine plant, and set a deadline of May 19, 2011, for compliance (see NGIAug. 29, 2011April 25, 2011). The agency cited its revised regulations for total dissolved solids for the change.

Aquatech Vice President Devesh Mittal of the shale gas division, told NGI that the Josephine plant stopped accepting wastewater from unconventional drilling in September 2011, and denied the Duke researchers' claims. "The main thing that they have highlighted is that there has been a continuing operation for accepting unconventional wastewater," he said. "That is incorrect. I cannot comment on how Duke conducted their study or what the basis was. It's just something we saw for the first time" last week.

The plant's previous owner Fluid Recovery Services Inc. (FRS) entered into a COA in May with DEP. The day before the COA was signed, FRS was created through a merger of Pennsylvania Brine Treatment Inc. and Hart Resource Technologies Inc., both owned by Paul Hart. Aquatech acquired FRS later that month.

According to the COA, sediment samples were taken from Blacklick Creek during the summer of 2012. "The presence of radium-226 and radium-228 at levels greater than 5 pCi/g [picocuries per gram] above background is a result of the past discharges from the Josephine facility," the COA said. "The direct radiation levels from the sediments pose no immediate exposure risk to the general public passing by the stream, or to employees of the facility."

DEP spokeswoman Lisa Kasianowitz said the COA addressed the concerns raised from the Duke study. "The Duke study can lead some people to believe that Josephine, as well as other facilities, are accepting and discharging unconventional Marcellus Shale wastewater. But that is untrue." However, the facility has been accepting wastewater from conventional drilling, which can also contain high radiation levels.

"The COA prohibits [Aquatech] from accepting and discharging treated gas well wastewater from unconventional formations until such time the company has constructed and installed treatment facilities to treat and remove radiation compounds, metals and salts from the wastewater," Kasianowitz said. She added that DEP inspectors have been to the Josephine plant several times since May, and that it is part of the agency's study of technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material

It's not the first time researchers from Duke have released a controversial study of the oil and gas industry. Jackson has participated in three studies of drinking water in northeast Pennsylvania (seeNGIJuly 1June 13, 2011May 16, 2011). 

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