HARRISBURG, Pa. — Prodded by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Pennsylvania said it is expanding the scope of water tests to screen for radioactive pollutants and other contaminants from the state’s booming natural gas drilling industry.
The state Department of Environmental Protection’s acting secretary, Michael Krancer, wrote Wednesday to the EPA to say that he has requested additional testing from some public water suppliers and wastewater treatment facilities.
Those steps, he said, were in the works before the EPA’s regional administrator, Shawn Garvin, sent a March 7 letter asking Pennsylvania to begin more water testing to make sure drinking water isn’t being contaminated by drillers. The state’s requests for additional testing, however, were made later in March, Krancer said.
The tests should check for radium, uranium and the salty dissolved solids that could potentially make drilling wastewater environmentally damaging, according to copies of letters the DEP said it sent to 14 public water authorities and 25 wastewater facilities.
In his letter last month, Garvin pointed out that most treatment facilities are unable to remove many of the pollutants in the often-toxic drilling water. Substances of concern, he said, include radioactive contaminants, organic chemicals, metals and salty dissolved solids.
In his letter to Garvin, Krancer seemed to bridle at the perceived suggestion that Pennsylvania isn’t doing its job keeping up with the drilling industry’s hot pursuit of the nation’s largest-known natural gas reservoir, the Marcellus Shale.
The Marcellus Shale formation lies primarily beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio. Pennsylvania is the center of activity, with more than 2,000 wells drilled in the past three years and many thousands more planned.
“Rest assured that well before receiving your letter, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been focusing on issues relating to natural gas drilling, and prioritizes protecting the environment and public health and safety above all else,” Krancer wrote.
Garvin also had asked Pennsylvania to re-examine permits previously issued to the treatment plants handling the waste, saying they lacked “critical provisions.” Krancer responded that requirements to monitor for substances of concern will be added to permits “upon renewal and where warranted.”
An EPA spokeswoman, Donna Heron, said Thursday that her agency received Pennsylvania’s letter and is reviewing it.
“We will continue to work closely with the state of Pennsylvania on all the issues involving Marcellus Shale,” she said in a statement.
Drilling for gas in deep shale deposits is emerging as a major new source of energy that supporters say is homegrown, cheap and friendlier environmentally than coal or oil.
But shale drilling requires injecting huge volumes of water underground to help shatter the rock — a process called hydraulic fracturing. Some of that water then returns to the surface.
In addition to producing gas, the Marcellus Shale wells produce large amounts of ultra-salty water tainted with metals like barium and strontium, trace radioactivity and small amounts of toxic chemicals injected by energy companies.
Most big gas states require drillers to dump their wastewater into deep shafts drilled into the earth to prevent it from contaminating surface or ground water. Pennsylvania, however, allows partially treated drilling wastewater to be discharged into rivers from which communities draw drinking water.
Before Garvin’s letter, water suppliers typically tested only occasionally for radium, and it had been years since the utilities drawing from rivers in the affected drilling region had done those tests.
Krancer also said his agency is seeking money to add more water-quality testing stations on Pennsylvania’s rivers. The state already is testing at seven spots on Pennsylvania’s waterways that are downriver from treatment plants that discharge partially treated gas-drilling wastewater, but upriver from public drinking water intakes.
Some Pennsylvania drilling wastewater is reused or trucked out-of-state for disposal underground. Of the wastewater that was taken to treatment plants in recent months, the great majority went to seven plants that discharge into the Allegheny River, the Mahoning River, the Conemaugh River, the Blacklick Creek, the Monongahela River, the Susquehanna River and the South Fork Ten-mile Creek.
Last month, the DEP said earlier tests from those seven waterways showed no harmful levels of radium, which exists naturally underground and is sometimes found in drilling wastewater that gushes from wells.
Radium that is swallowed or inhaled can accumulate in a person’s bones. Long-term exposure increases the risk of developing several diseases, such as lymphoma, bone cancer and diseases that affect the formation of blood, EPA said.
Last August, the Department of Environmental Protection, under Krancer’s predecessor, won approval of rules that will make it difficult for a new treatment plant to accept drilling wastewater, unless it has expensive distilling equipment. In the meantime, the industry has been working to reduce the amount of waste sent to rivers.
The EPA is currently planning a nationwide study on the environmental consequences, particularly the impact on the quality and quantity of water.