Appalachian Basin

*UPDATE* Five Facts About Duke’s Latest Anti-Shale Study

UPDATE (10/7/13; 10:10 am ET) Ann Seamonds of Fluid Recovery Services (FRS), which operates the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility that the Duke team “studied,” has sent along the following statement:

“Fluid Recovery Services (FRS) is in full compliance with the PA DEP permitting requirements and agreements. The facility is operating under the authorized NPDES permits and has not processed any wastewater classified as originating from unconventional sources such as Marcellus Shale since 2011. In addition, FRS is on schedule with the PA DEP Consent Order and Agreement (COA) dated May 10, 2013 for remediation of the Blacklick Creek and to upgrade the facility.

As the leader in water management treatment services for Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry, FRS has taken proactive and unprecedented steps to work cooperatively with the PA DEP to achieve the highest quality of treatment.  FRS has the strongest portfolio of cutting edge fixed and mobile treatment technologies in the industry for filtration, pretreatment, evaporation and crystallization. FRS is committed to providing its technology leadership to continue to meet or exceed treated water quality regulatory requirements, and has already submitted requests for permit approvals to achieve the Chapter 95 requirements that were revised in 2010.”

Original post, Oct. 2, 2013

The Duke team is at it again, this time with a new study that claims to have found “elevated levels of radioactivity” in a western Pennsylvania creek, which they blame on wastewater generated by Marcellus Shale development. But a closer look at the study, and the facts, tells another story – a story far different from what you’ve probably already seen in the media.

Here are five facts you need to know about this latest Duke study:

FACT 1: Treatment facilities stopped receiving Marcellus wastewater in 2011.

Duke Professor and study co-author Avner Vengosh characterized the study this way to the press:

“We were surprised by the magnitude of radioactivity…It’s unusual to find this level,” he says, urging that other sites be investigated and that such water not [be] discharged.

This is actually really surprising, but not for the reason Vengosh believes. This study was conducted from August 2010 to November 2012 and focused on the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility, a facility that Marcellus operators stopped using in May 2011. Members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition (who make up 96 percent of all production in the Marcellus) sent a letter in April 2011 to state regulators stating that they would no longer take flowback water to treatment facilities that discharge wastewater into rivers – including the one featured in the Duke report. To its credit, Bloomberg actually makes this point, quoting the manager of the treatment plant as saying:

We are not processing any unconventional wastewater. We manifest every gallon of water that comes in. As part of the manifest, they make a declaration that the water is coming from the well where it is listed.”

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has similarly affirmed that the plant stopped accepting Marcellus Shale wastewater in 2011.

Interestingly, the authors of the report admit this, albeit buried in the “Supplemental Information” section:

“Certain POTWs originally accepted wastewater associated with unconventional Marcellus Shale gas wells until May 2011, when the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) requested that oil and gas operators voluntarily cease disposal of wastewater from unconventional wells (i.e., Marcellus wastewater) to POTWs. However, private companies (that operated brine treatment facilities for several decades) still operate in western Pennsylvania treating conventional oil and gas produced water” (p. S3).

In the main body of the study, the authors make an entirely different claim: they say that in 2011 wastewater from the Marcellus was simply “reduced”:

“During 2010 and 2011, a large portion (>50%) of wastewater treated in this facility was from the unconventional shale gas wells of the Marcellus Formation, but by September 2011 the amount of the Marcellus wastewater was reduced relative to produced water from conventional sources” (p. B).

FACT 2: Researchers took samples directly at the source.

As page S4 of the “Supplemental Information” section also reveals, the sample from 2012 with the highest reading for total dissolved solids (TDS) downstream was taken only one meter from the source. That’s like taking an air sample directly from the tailpipe of a car and declaring an air quality crisis.

What’s more is that the highest reading came from a sample in 2012, which we know was well after that facility stopped receiving Marcellus Shale wastewater. The second highest reading, taken only 10 meters downstream, was also from a 2012 sample.

Meanwhile, the researchers failed to take samples from areas actually near water intake facilities. Needless to say, there were also no tests done on the drinking water that was processed from those facilities. If this study were truly motivated by public health concerns – and not simply delivering the prescribed headlines – then wouldn’t you expect the researchers to test the water that folks are actually going to be consuming?

FACT 3: DEP concluded drinking water was safe from radioactive contaminants.

Notably, in March 2011, state regulators conducted a series of tests on drinking water suppliers in Western Pennsylvania and found no radioactive contaminants in the water.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported:

A battery of tests has showed no radioactive contaminants in the water used and produced at 12 of 14 drinking water suppliers in Western Pennsylvania, according to state environmental regulators.

Wastewater treatment plants and drinking water suppliers performed extra tests throughout March, reacting to media reports that questioned whether an increase in Marcellus shale drilling had led to the introduction of radioactive chemicals into public water.

FACT 4: Radium levels were below established thresholds.

The report found:

“The total activity of radium (i.e., 226Ra + 228Ra) in wastewater effluent (226Ra = 0.11 to 0.19 Bq/L and 228Ra = 0.04 to 0.13 Bq/L; SI Table S3) was well below the industrial discharge limit of 2.2 Bq/L (60 pCi/L in the U.S)” (p. D).

That’s a point that all the media hype left out and the Duke researchers didn’t bother to comment on.  After all the talk of high levels of radiation, clearly designed to secure headlines (like all good Park-funded studies; see more on that below), it turns out that radium levels were below established thresholds.

FACT 5: The study was funded by the anti-fracking Park Foundation.

The Duke study was funded by a well-known outfit called the Park Foundation, which has funneled literally millions of dollars to research intended to malign shale development.  From the report:

“We gratefully acknowledge funding from Fred and Alice Stanback and Park Foundation to the Nicholas School of the Environment” (p. H).

We’ve covered the Park Foundation at EID extensively, so we won’t get into all of the details here. But if you need a quick refresher, its president actually said in 2011: “In our work to oppose fracking, the Park Foundation has simply helped fuel an army of courageous individuals and NGOs…”

To be clear, just because researchers received funding from a particular source does not automatically disqualify their research as a tool for public understanding. But when looking at the significant flaws listed above, one might look at the funding source and understand why those flaws exist.

  • Tueggs kramboldt
    Posted at 12:28h, 04 October Reply

    These “facts” do nothing to refute the validity of the study. Looks like you’re really grasping for straws here. Speaking of facts…

    …Fact 3 includes the following: A battery of tests has showed no radioactive contaminants in the water used and produced at 12 of 14 drinking water suppliers in Western Pennsylvania, according to state environmental regulators.

    So, what’s the deal with the other 2?

  • David Lawrence
    Posted at 18:40h, 07 October Reply

    Not having the study tables in front of me and little time to research the source at this time (as a working Health Physicist), it would be important to note what the combined Ra-226 + Ra-228 was in these samples as that is all that really matters since the regulations stipulate total Ra. Ra-226 and Ra-228 are from parent materials and form different decay chains and as such are not in equilibrium with one another and not necessarily related. The discharge limits for total Ra are typically to drinking water standards which are 5 pCi/l (0.185 Bq/l) and is something that ion and cation exchange resins will remediate prior to discharge and it is done all of the time. One item of note is that many municipal drinking water supply systems also employ this ion/cation exchange technology as their water does not meet this standard prior to treatment. Many municipal wells fail to meet the drinking water standard for total Radium prior to treatment. This is especially true of those in the Northeast such as PA. NY and NJ.

  • Fracking Lies and Intellectual CorruptionNatural Gas Now
    Posted at 14:17h, 11 August Reply

    […] apparently comes from one of those Park Foundation funded studies by Duke University, which is pretty thoroughly debunked here, but even so the study says “The total activity of radium (i.e., 226Ra + 228Ra) in wastewater […]

  • Kim Feil
    Posted at 17:29h, 10 October Reply

    In Arlington TX, we started seeing Bromate in our drinking water after drilling came in…the bromides in drilling mud can mix with the water treatment plant’s ozone and or chlorine and make…bromate…hmm

  • Paul Roden
    Posted at 10:24h, 13 October Reply

    The radium and uranium eventually decay into lead, releasing radon along the way. The radiation from radon, is one of the markers in the gas to determine what strata drillers are in the rock. This radon is also radioactive and has a half life of 3.8 days. It would take 10 half lives or 30.8 days for the radon to decay enough to render it harmless. The gas from the Marcellus Shale has higher concentrations of radon than shallow, non horizontal gas wells. Marcellus Shale gas is already being shipped to market in the Northeast. I doubt the gas companies and drillers are holding it in tanks to decay before celling it to consumers. Radon is an inert gas that is colorless and odorless. Radon can not be filtered, treated or vented, like it is in people’s homes or businesses who require mitigation because of radon. Radon causes cancer, especially lung cancer. The gas industry dismisses this radon as “harmless” which it is not. You can’t buy or sell a home without testing and mitigating for radon. Uranium miners and homeowners out West who built homes on or with uranium mine mill tailings, all came down with higher rates of lung cancer from inhaling radon. It is not being monitored or measured for public health impact in the Northeast. So gas customers in the Northeast are now unwittingly participating as guinea pigs in a giant public health experiment so the gas companies can earn their quick fast buck.

    • Energy In Depth
      Posted at 11:00h, 13 October Reply

      Thanks for your comment Paul. We would urge you and others who are interested in claims about radon — common within the “ban fracking” community — to check out EID’s video, which looked in depth at what the experts have actually concluded. The short answer is that this accusation against fracking is simply another myth. The full video is here:

      Again, thank you for reading our blog.

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