The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants Pennsylvania to immediately test its water supplies for radioactivity.

“I stand ready to provide EPA’s support and to utilize our federal authorities to require drinking water and wastewater monitoring if that becomes necessary,” EPA Region 3 Administrator Shawn Garvin wrote on Monday in a letter to Michael Krancer, acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). “In addition, EPA is prepared to exercise its enforcement authorities as appropriate where our investigations reveal violations of federal law.”

The letter is the most recent reverberation from series of New York Times articles claiming that wastewater from Marcellus Shale drilling operations is threatening Pennsylvania water supplies. Those articles used EPA reports and information from anonymous EPA sources, suggesting a lack of communication between the EPA and the DEP (see Shale Daily, March 1).

Now the EPA is getting more involved in monitoring water quality in Pennsylvania.

“The most important near-term step is requiring community water systems near publicly owned treatment works (POTW) and centralized wastewater treatment (CWT) facilities receiving Marcellus Shale wastewater to conduct sampling immediately for radionuclides,” Garvin wrote, adding that EPA believes it can design a plan and collect samples within the next 30 days.

Garvin said community water systems have not been sampled since Marcellus Shale operations began because earlier testing did not detect high concentrations of radionuclides, but that Marcellus Shale disposal “could increase radionuclide levels substantially.”

On Monday the DEP said samples from seven Pennsylvania rivers showed radioactivity levels below federal drinking water standards for radium (see Shale Daily, March 8). Garvin said future tests must account for the variability of radionuclides by the source and volume of the wastewater. Radionuclides are radioactive atoms formed naturally in underground shale formations.

“We would like to discuss sampling design with you,” Garvin wrote, asking the DEP to quickly submit a list of water systems that require expedited monitoring, details about how sampling would occur and a time line for the program. The tests would form the basis for “imposing the controls necessary to ensure that public health and the aquatic environment are protected.”

Garvin also asked the DEP to quickly submit a list of every treatment facility in Pennsylvania that accepts Marcellus Shale wastewater and a list of all the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits that the DEP plans to reanalyze. Garvin said the EPA is in favor of taking another look at NPDES permits because the permits do not currently include “critical provisions necessary for effective processing and treatment of wastewaters from drilling operations.”

The NPDES is a federal water control pollution program that is typically administered by state governments.

The EPA also plans to send a guidance letter to all CWT facilities and POTWs in the Marcellus Shale region, explaining the current legal requirements, and to work with the DEP main and regional offices on wastewater management issues.

Garvin also said the EPA plans to beef up its underground injection well program in Pennsylvania. With more injection wells, Pennsylvania drillers could bury wastewater rather than treat it. Pennsylvania currently has a scarcity of these wells.

Garvin noted that while the DEP “has undertaken a number of important steps to strengthen protections,” such as enhancing regulations for drilling operations, imposing new disposal standards (see Daily GPI, Aug 26, 2010), allowing more treatment centers to take wastewater from drilling operations and expanding water quality monitoring, it said recent reports suggest that wastewater may contain dangerous substances. While Garvin specifically mentioned DEP reports, he did not reference the New York Times articles.

Following the articles, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) called for the EPA to respond to the reports.

The DEP is “reading and evaluating the letter, just like we do with all input that comes to us,” Krancer said in a statement.

“We at DEP know what our responsibilities are,” Krancer said. “We agree with EPA that natural gas is a key part of our energy-independence future. It is also a key part of out clean and affordable energy future. We will focus on protecting public safety and the environment and we will do that with facts and science. We will work with EPA to be sure that it is aware of everything we are doing in Pennsylvania in that regard.”

While policymakers have discussed wastewater issues for years, the articles brought them to the forefront of the debate over natural gas drilling.

A Pennsylvania state lawmaker now wants produced water to be among the hazardous waste regulated for transport.

Rep. Phyllis Mundy (D-Luzerne) said she plans to introduce legislation that would designate wastewater from natural gas drilling operations as hazardous waste under the state’s Vehicle Code. The designation sets out guidelines for how dangerous materials are labeled and handled.

On Monday House lawmakers defeated a similar amendment that Mundy added to a vehicle registration bill. Rep. John Payne (R-Hershey) said existing environmental regulations already cover the transportation of wastewater, and the Motor Carrier Safety Administration is already able to determine what substances are hazardous, according to the Towanda Daily-Review.

Mundy said legislation is needed because several recent accidents involving trucks carrying wastewater from Marcellus Shale drilling operations have led to spills. Her bill would require truck drivers to be trained in handling the fluids.