Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will undertake a 12-14 month comprehensive study of naturally occurring levels of radioactivity in by-products of oil and natural gas development, the agency said Thursday.

“In the coming weeks, DEP will seek a peer review of its study plan and begin to sample and analyze the naturally occurring radioactivity levels in flowback waters, treatment solids and drill cuttings, as well as associated matters such as the transportation, storage and disposal of drilling wastes,” the agency said.

DEP will collect samples of flowback water, rock cuttings, treatment solids and sediments at well pads and wastewater treatment and waste disposal facilities. The agency will also analyze radioactivity levels in pipes and well casings, storage tanks, treatment systems and trucks. The study will be conducted “at dozens of sites statewide,” beginning early this year, DEP said.

DEP routinely reviews radioactivity data in wastes generated by industries, including the oil and natural gas industry, and the information the agency has obtained “indicates very low levels of natural radioactivity,” the agency said. The new study “is aimed at ensuring that public health and the environment continue to be protected.”

The study, which is being undertaken at the direction of Gov. Tom Corbett, will be “will be the most comprehensive study of its kind anywhere,” according to DEP Secretary Mike Krancer.

“This thorough and rigorous study, which will focus on conditions here in Pennsylvania, is further demonstration that states are best suited to responsibly oversee the natural gas exploration and production activities taking place in our respective borders. DEP’s current regulations and monitoring networks are designed to protect the public from exposure to unsafe levels of radiation, and our regulations in this field have led the nation for years,” Krancer said.

Pennsylvania require landfills to monitor radiation levels in incoming wastes and employ a DEP-developed protocol to determine if detected amounts of radioactive material can be accepted. “This protocol ensures that the materials, such as Marcellus Shale drill cuttings and other sources of naturally occurring radiation in the waste stream, do not pose a risk to public health during disposal,” DEP said.

DEP data indicates that less than half a percent of all drill cuttings produced by the Marcellus Shale industry in 2012 that were disposed of in landfills triggered radiation monitors. “The cuttings did not contain levels of radioactivity that would be harmful to the public, and they were safely disposed of in the landfills,” the agency said.

The new study comes almost two years after DEP announced that water samples taken from seven Pennsylvania rivers showed levels of radioactivity at or below “background levels” (see Shale Daily, March 8, 2011). Those testes were conducted downstream from facilities that treated flowback and produced water from Marcellus Shale drilling operations. The tests sampled raw river water before it entered public water suppliers’ intakes.

In 2011 DEP ordered water treatment plants in the state to test for radioactivity and other contaminants from Marcellus Shale wastewater (see Shale Daily, April 12, 2011). “Most results showed no detectable levels of radioactivity, and the levels that were detectable did not exceed safe drinking water standards,” according to DEP.

DEP will conduct the new study with Pittsburgh-based Perma-Fix Environmental Services.