Water samples taken from seven Pennsylvania rivers showed levels of radioactivity at or below “background levels,” according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The DEP conducted the tests in November and December downstream from facilities that treat flowback and produced water from Marcellus Shale drilling operations. The tests sampled raw river water before it entered public water suppliers’ intakes. Those facilities treat the water again before supplying it to the public.

“Here are the facts: all samples were at or below background levels of radioactivity; and all samples showed levels below the federal drinking water standard for radium 226 and 228,” acting DEP Secretary Michael Krancer wrote in a statement.

The DEP installed the stations last fall, after implementing new wastewater disposal rules, to monitor water quality in the wake of Marcellus Shale development (see Daily GPI, Aug, 26, 2010). The testing occurred at stations on the Monongahela, Conemaugh, Allegheny, Beaver and Tioga Rivers, South Fork Ten Mile Creek and the West Branch of the Susquehanna Rivers, locations across Marcellus Shale country in Pennsylvania.

Water quality became a public issue in Pennsylvania following a series of critical articles in the New York Times that accused the DEP of not effectively regulating radium in wastewater disposal (see Shale Daily, March 1).

Since then policy makers, water companies, industry groups and others in Pennsylvania have been responding to those stories on two fronts, testing local waterways for radiation while challenging details in the coverage.

On Monday the Marcellus Shale Coalition called the DEP testing results “encouraging,” and announced a new $100,000 fund to support water testing connected to Marcellus Shale development.

The industry advocacy group also said it would facilitate an Energy Research Collaborative that would bring together representatives from academia, government, industry and other stakeholder groups to focus on “areas in need of more fact-based investigation” starting with naturally occurring radioactive material.

On Monday Penn State University said it was conducting an “independent, comprehensive analysis” of the potential for flowback waters from natural gas drilling operations to impact water quality in the state.

Those results will eventually be made public.

The Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research (MCOR), part of the Cooperative Extension at Penn State, also called for treatment facilities that process fluids from Marcellus Shale drilling operations to conduct routine monitoring to ensure adequate water quality protection, and for public water systems with intakes located downstream from those facilities to also conduct routine monitoring of drinking water supplies.

While its new study suggests that the MCOR is taking the New York Times’ allegations seriously, the group also offered details about the water treatment process, looking to give some perspective on the coverage.

For instance, the MCOR noted that Times articles compared levels of radium 226, radium 228, gross alpha, gross beta and benzene in local wastewater samples to drinking water standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but did not note that the wastewater was not used for drinking water.

The MCOR also said the articles didn’t consider several “crucial variables” for determining whether concentrations of radionuclides are adversely impacting water quality, such as “the initial concentrations in the flowback water, the treatment removal efficiency, and the level of dilution by the receiving stream.”

Radionuclides, or radioactive atoms, are naturally occurring and vary in concentration depending on geography and drilling, the MCOR noted. Concentrations naturally vary across Pennsylvania. Because concentrations increase the longer water stays in contact with shale formations, initial flowback water diluted by hydraulic fracturing fluids tends to have fewer radionuclides than late-stage flowback waters.

The MCOR also noted that current treatment options manage radioactivity.

The chemical precipitation process used to remove metals from flowback water at oil and gas wastewater treatment facilities also removes “a large percentage” of radionuclides. And municipal treatment centers must dilute flowback water to meet state standards limiting flowback water to 1% of average daily flow rates.

The stories continue to reverberate around Pennsylvania.

On Friday State Rep. Camille George (D-74) of Clearfield County said he plans to introduce legislation that would require facilities to test for radioactivity before and after treatment, and before water is released into drinking water supplies. The testing would be paid for by the natural gas industry and conducted by an independent firm.

On Saturday the Times published a rebuttal from former Gov. Ed Rendell and former DEP Secretary John Hanger.

“Pennsylvania has the strongest enforcement program of any state with gas drilling. Period,” Rendell and Hanger wrote. However, they also called for immediate, mandatory testing for radioactivity in all Pennsylvania public water systems.

The Pennsylvania American Water Co. and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority both announced plans to voluntarily test drinking water sources following the publication of the articles (see Shale Daily, March 3).