Well Beyond the NORM

Unable to move the needle with conventional attacks, ProPublica digs deep for assault on Marcellus aimed explicitly at scaring the public

It might not be the most pleasant realization known to man, but the truth of the natural world around us is this: It’s radioactive. “Radiation,” according to one government site, “is everywhere in the universe.” And “everyone,” according to EPA, “has some minor exposure to it.”

Dirt, bricks, plants, animals, even the sun – you can find naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) everywhere. And since “everywhere,” last we checked, includes subterranean areas of New York, it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise that some degree of radiation is likely found 8,000-feet down in the Marcellus Shale formation as well.

Context, in this case, is key. Unfortunately, not very much of it made its way into the latest anti-energy piece filed this week by ProPublica. According to author Abrahm Lustgarten, the idea that some radiation would be found in (naturally occurring) groundwater deposits thousands of feet underground was a “troubling discovery” for officials in New York – and one, he argues, the state is wholly unpreparedto manage:

“It is not clear which treatment plants, if any in New York, are capable of handling such material.”

“The DEC has yet to address any of these questions.”

“[T]hey have yet to say how they’ll deal with it.”

Indeed, reading through the ProPublica piece, one starts to wonder how New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) could’ve made such an obvious oversight; how the agency could’ve spent nearly three years, and millions of dollars, developing an 804-page draft regulations document without even considering how issues related to NORM would be handled.

But then you take a second to read the actual DEC document. And you start coming across passages like this:

The discharge of radioactive material into the environment is regulated by DEC. … [A]ny discharge of effluents into the environment will need to be tested for NORM concentrations prior to discharge.

Read that sentence again: Under DEC’s draft rules, not a drop of wastewater will be allowed to leave the wellsite without first being tested. But what happens when it gets to the wastewater treatment facility? According to Lustgarten, that’s when things get really unsettled – since not a single treatment plant in central New York, per his accounting, is even capable of accepting water with high levels of NORM:

ProPublica contacted several plant managers in central New York who said they could not take the waste or were not familiar with state regulations.

Interesting. But before we throw up our hands and call the whole thing off, isn’t it worth asking how high these NORM levels actually are? There’s got to be a government agency out there, somewhere, that’s taken the time to test the groundwater buried in the Marcellus. There’s got to be a group of environmental engineers, somewhere, that’s taken a hard look at what level of NORM is safe for the public, for workers, for the environment, and what isn’t. There’s just got to be, right?

Right. It’s called DEC. And here’s what the 3,500-employee agency found after it conducted a two-year study and field review process seeking to characterize and quantify the presence of NORM in the Marcellus Shale:

To determine NORM concentrations … [DEC] conducted field and sample surveys … which indicatelevels of radioactivity that are essentially background values, [and] do not indicate an exposure concern for workers or the general public associated with Marcellus cuttings.

Although the largest volume of NORM is in produced waters, it does not present a risk to workers because the external radiation levels are very low.

So, to recap: Not only does DEC have a regulatory apparatus and permit-issuing structure in place, right now, to handle issues related to NORM, but it spent the better part of the last two years testing and re-testing core samples from the Marcellus to ensure the levels of NORM associated with both the shale rock and the attending groundwater met accepted standards of health and safety.

Make no mistake: NORM is an issue that producers of energy have always taken very seriously – and one that states, communities and the federal government have studied, regulated and monitored extensivelyfor decades. Why would any of that change in New York?

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