Environmental group calls DEP report on shale gas drilling 'misleading'

An environmental organization says an 11-month-old state Department of Environmental Protection report, which found little risk of radioactivity exposure from shale gas drilling and development, is incomplete, inaccurate and invalid, and should be redone.

According to a 25-page review released last week by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the DEP study of technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials — TENORM — brought to the surface by the shale gas drilling industry did not accurately measure the radioactivity levels of water, sludge and rock cuttings at drill sites and landfills, and minimized the risk of exposure to the public, drilling industry workers and the environment.

Although the shale gas drilling industry hailed the DEP’s January radiation report as evidence that radiation encountered in the 450-million-year-old Marcellus formation was being effectively managed, the Riverkeeper review says that’s an unsupportable conclusion based on available data.

“The DEP TENORM report was not comprehensive. It was misleading,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which closely follows shale gas issues. “We know that radioactivity levels in the Marcellus formation are high and that raises concerns, But the DEP report sidestepped those issues. It really needs a do-over.”

The DEP said it has received the Riverkeeper review but declined to comment.

Geologists and government agencies have known about the high radioactivity levels in the Marcellus Shale for more than 50 years, and the review cites U.S. Geological Survey data that measured radium concentrations at 32 times background concentrations at the surface. A New York environmental agency review found radium concentrations 200 times higher than surface background.

Shale gas drilling brings that radioactivity to the surface in rock cuttings, fluids and flowback water and radon gas, according to the review, written by Marvin Resnikoff, a nuclear physicist, nuclear waste expert and consultant to the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

“This is not alchemy, where lead is magically turned into gold, or in the case of Marcellus Shale, where radioactivity below ground, magically disappears when brought to the surface,” Mr. Resnikoff wrote in the review. “Contaminated liquids, gases and solids will enter the accessible environment and be taken in by the public, increasing the likelihood of cancers. Radium-226 has a half-life of 1,600 years, so it will be present in the environment for thousands of years.”

Mr. Resnikoff’s review also called for a comprehensive investigation by the DEP of water discharges — known as leachate — from all landfills that accept gas well drill cuttings, based on elevated radium levels detected by sampling for the study.

The study was done for the department by Perma-Fix Environmental Services Inc., an Atlanta-based nuclear waste management and consulting firm that has an office in Beaver. The study cost about $1.2 million and was released in January, in the waning days of the Corbett administration.

“I do think the DEP rushed to push the study out the door before the changing of the guard,” Ms. Carluccio said. “I hope the new administration will take a fresh look at this with a new set of eyes.”

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a statewide industry lobbying organization, termed the Riverkeeper review’s claims “baseless.”

“The facts and unbiased science . . . around this important issue are clear and stand in stark contrast to the scare tactics outlined in this so-called ’research,’” Erica Clayton Wright, a coalition spokeswoman, said in a written response to a request for comment.

Also this week, the DEP released its report on radioactivity in Tenmile Creek, Greene County, which found no indications of elevated or accumulated radiation levels in the sediment, plants and fish downstream from the Clyde Mine abandoned mine treatment facility.

The DEP undertook the study six months ago after surface water samples taken in the spring of 2014 raised concerns about higher than normal levels of naturally occurring radioactive materials in the creek. It confirms followup sampling that didn’t find elevated radiation levels in the creek.

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1983 or on Twitter @donhopey.

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