The Pennsylvania natural gas drilling industry has announced through its two statewide associations that it’s conducting a study into naturally occurring radioactivity released through the drilling process, a study that “complements” another underway by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“It’s not a competition or in conjunction with DEP,” said Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesman Travis Windle. “We’re doing this to get as many data points as we can so we’re completely confident in our systems.”

The other industry association involved is the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association.

The studies are aimed at determining the levels of naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) and technologically enhanced NORM (TENORM) in shale production-related activities.

The water used in fracking, the drill bits and other instruments of drilling in the shale produce flowback water and drill cuttings that could potentially contain NORM and TENORM, according to a statement from the coalition. The study’s sampling will analyze these elements in detail as well as various operational practices and equipment used in the tightly regulated shale development process. The organizations will work with accredited laboratories to analyze samples.

A DEP spokeswoman said officials want to be sure that current regulations are keeping the levels low enough that they pose no danger.

The drill bits are usually deposited in landfills. Nearly 90 percent of the water used in the drilling process is recycled and used again. The remaining 10 percent is injected into old wells or sent to waste water treatment plants.

“Facilities that wish to treat and discharge waste water must obtain a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit and meet strict discharge standards that are regarded as among the strictest in the nation,” said DEP information specialist Lisa Kasianowitz. “The tough regulations have led to the high amount of recycling and reuse.”

Kasianowitz said current data indicates that the public or workers don’t face any health risk from exposure to radiation from these materials, but this study will provide the DEP and the industry with the data needed to ensure these naturally occurring radioactive materials are effectively managed for the long term.

As part of the study, the DEP will screen or sample drill cuttings, produced waters, water/mud mixes that come up when drilling initially starts, waste water recycling and treatment sludges, treatment and recycling filter screens, extracted natural gas, well casing and pipelines with scale build-up, and fluid and waste trucks and haulers, Kasianowitz wrote in an email. The DEP will be actively sampling and studying at well pads, waste water treatment plants, waste water recycling facilities and landfills.

Since 2001, all landfills in Pennsylvania have been required to monitor for radiation, and have a DEP-approved action plan for responding to alarms. These landfills are required to obtain approval from the DEP before they can dispose any solid waste containing concentrated, naturally occurring radioactive material.

— John L. Kennedy, for the Law Weekly