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Duke Researchers Find Radioactive Contamination in Fracking Wastewater

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018   

DURHAM, N.C. — North Carolina legalized fracking as a method of drilling for natural gas in 2014. While no permits have been issued, there is growing concern about the impact the practice will have on the health of the state's residents if and when fracking's wastewater is released.

A team of scientists at Duke University has found highly-elevated levels of radioactive deposits in the mud where three Pennsylvania treatment plants release wastewater.

That's even after the water is treated to greatly reduce its radioactivity, says Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality, Duke University, who led the research team.

"We found that, indeed, there is a large enrichment of radioactive elements in those stream sediments," he says. "It's about 600 times the level that we found in upstream."

The industry points out that the brine and other water from oil and gas wells contain some naturally-occurring radioactive elements, but only very low levels. According to the North Carolina Oil & Gas Commission's website, no entities have applied for a permit to drill in North Carolina. There are reports of landowners already signing leases with oil and gas companies.

Vengosh notes the treated wastewater was from conventional oil and gas wells - not fracking wells, although he says the Duke researchers have found similar issues where fracking wastewater had been released. He adds Pennsylvania stopped the release of treated water from fracking operations some years ago.

He also notes that one troubling issue is how high these concentrations can get - as high as 10 times the radioactivity of low-level radioactive waste from, say, a hospital or power plant.

"So they are exceeding the level that this site should be defined as a low radioactive disposal site," he explains. "Obviously, they are not - it's the middle of a stream in Pennsylvania."

He says most of the nation's oil and gas brine is injected into deep disposal wells, although the geology in Pennsylvania often makes that impossible. Vengosh says treating the wastewater isn't enough.

"I don't think there is a direct human health risk immediately from those sites," he adds. "But there is a chronic contamination of the environment. Even the treatment, it's not sufficient to address this problem."

Oil and gas wastewater is sometimes used to melt winter ice on roads. Vengosh says that also may not be safe.


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