Shales, Scales, and Sales – Radioactive Fracking Waste

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Photo credit: J. Henry Fair

By Hunter Marion.

Within the U.S., 12 states produce the vast majority of the country’s fossil fuels. These states are Alaska, California, Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Three of these states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia) sit atop two massive underground geological formations called the Utica and Marcellus Shales.

Shale is a “fine-grained sedimentary rock composed mostly of consolidated clay or mud” that has preserved ancient organic material from hundreds of millions of years ago. Fossil fuels, which are gases or liquids derived from the decay of this material, are plentiful amongst shale layers. Fracking is the most common and lucrative way to extract this organic material from the shale. It is also one of the most destructive forms of energy extraction in our country.

Fracking is the process of pumping pressurized water, chemicals, and a “proppant” (usually sand) to fracture and hold open underground fissures in shale containing oil and gas. The refuse from this process is then removed from the site and either stored at an off-site location or injected into a deep well. Every step in this process jeopardizes public health and ecological stability. But it also produces rampant hazardous waste.

Some of the decaying material in shale is radioactive. Normally, these radionuclides or naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs) are buried and do not pose a threat to human health. However, when they are extracted by unnatural means they then become technologically enhanced NORMs (TENORMs) and can be dangerous when concentrated in high quantities – like in fracking.

TENORMs accrue in the instruments used for extraction. Several types of fracking waste like scales, sludge, and brine cause recurring radioactive exposure. Scales are layered mineral deposits that cake the inside of pipes from gas wells. They contain the highest concentration of radioactive material and must be removed by hand. Sludge is a mixture of oil, liquids, sand, soil, and residue that accumulates at the bottom of storage tanks. Although radiation concentrates less in liquid form, sludge poses the greatest threat to health as it can more easily escape into the environment or drain into nearby water. And brine, or liquid waste, is the refuse from the initial pressurization of the fissure. It has repeatedly been found seeping into the groundwater and soil via unexpected ways, such as commercial deicer, road dust suppressants, or “Johnny on the spot” restrooms.

On-site workers are constantly exposed to elevated rates of radioactive waste. One radionuclide commonly found in fracking waste is radium (Ra). Brines from the Utica Shale region have been found containing Ra at 580 times the EPA maximum contaminant level. Consistent exposure to radium is also correlated with elevated risk of developing cancer to chronic blood and bone disease. Reporting has even shown that fracking companies often do not provide workers with personal protective equipment (PPE). Employees are typically tasked with manually moving, cleaning, and handling fracking waste without any radiation training or even awareness of the material’s potential harm. These workers then unconsciously expose nearby civilians and buildings to radiation when they leave work.

Lastly, due to a loophole in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the federal government (i.e., the EPA) cannot regulate oil and gas waste. More specifically, oil and gas waste is not considered hazardous waste under RCRA. Meaning that no matter the amount of TENORMs present in fracking waste, it does not need to be properly disposed of and treated. Thus, these wastes become “orphaned” and get lost in a system of nearby landfills, waterways, or incinerators. In Texas, one company just left deteriorating vats of waste exposed to the desert heat. State and local governments can address these wastes, but they have either not cared to or failed to do enough.

Radioactive fracking waste has been a problem since the 1980s. From Oregon to New York, the disposal of conventional and unconventional fracking well waste has been continuously mishandled and endangered hundreds of thousands of lives. All levels of government should be held accountable for recognizing fracking waste as a hazardous byproduct. Maybe then the country can finally find a real home for this orphaned waste instead of abandoning it near ours.

For more information about radioactive fracking waste, check out these articles by Rolling Stone, the Public Herald, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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