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

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

Robert Jackson and Avner Vengosh, faculty members of 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 with researchers Nathaniel Warner and Cidney Christie. Their findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

According to the abstract that accompanied the Duke study, “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.

“We were surprised by the magnitude of radioactivity,” Vengosh said, according to reports. “It’s unusual to find this level [of radioactivity].”

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, that were still accepting it and set a deadline of May 19, 2011, for compliance (see Shale Daily, Aug. 17, 2011; April 20, 2011). The agency cited its revised regulations for total dissolved solids for the change.

Devesh Mittal, vice president for Aquatech’s shale gas division, told NGI’s Shale Daily that the Josephine plant stopped accepting wastewater from unconventional drilling in September 2011, and denied the Duke researchers’ claims that the Josephine facility had accepted unconventional wastewater after the DEP’s deadline.

“The main thing that they have highlighted is that there has been a continuing operation for accepting unconventional wastewater,” Mittal said Thursday. “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 yesterday.”

On May 10, the plant’s previous owner, Fluid Recovery Services Inc. (FRS), entered into a COA with the DEP. The day before the COA was signed, FRS formed from a merger of Pennsylvania Brine Treatment Inc. and Hart Resource Technologies Inc., two companies 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,” Kasianowitz said Thursday. But 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 (TENORM) (see Shale Daily,Oct. 3).

It’s not the first time researchers from Duke have released a controversial study of the oil and gas industry. Jackson participated in three studies of drinking water in northeast Pennsylvania (see Shale Daily, June 25; June 8, 2011; May 11, 2011).

On Wednesday, Energy In Depth (EID), an industry-backed national shale gas education initiative, blasted the methods used by the Duke researchers but also noted that the study had been funded by the Park Foundation, which it accused of being against shale development.

 “To be clear, just because researchers received funding from a particular source does not automatically disqualify their research as a tool for public understanding,” EID said. “But when looking at the significant flaws [contained in the study], one might look at the funding source and understand why those flaws exist.”