Researchers studying the environmental impact of wastewater from shale gas wells said they found abnormal levels of a radioactive contaminant downstream of the Josephine brine-treatment facility along Blacklick Creek.
In a study published Tuesday, the Duke University researchers said they compared water and sediment samples from points above and below the facility and found higher levels of radium, salts and metals downstream.
The study was published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.
“Radium levels were about 200 times greater in sediment samples collected where the Josephine brine treatment facility discharges its treated wastewater into Blacklick Creek than in sediment samples collected just upstream of the plant,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.
Researchers also wrote that they found higher concentrations of some salts and metals downstream of the plant.
The plant is operated by Canonsburg-based Aquatech, which acquired it in May through a merger with Fluid Recovery Services, which itself was formed through the combining of Hart Resource Technologies and Pennsylvania Brine Treatment.
The plant stopped processing wastewater from unconventional gas wells in 2011 and is operating under the terms of a consent order with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
A representative from the DEP did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Aquatech President and CEO Venkee Sharma said the company is working in line with the agreement. He also stressed that the facility is not processing wastewater from unconventional wells.
In the study, researchers said they found that the facility was effective — but not entirely — at removing certain contaminants, which over the years have accumulated in the sediments.
“Although the facility’s treatment process significantly reduced radium and barium levels in the wastewater, the amount of radioactivity that has accumulated in the river sediments still exceeds thresholds for safe disposal of radioactive materials,” said Vengosh.
“Years of disposal of oil and gas wastewater with high radioactivity has created potential environmental risks for thousands of years to come,” he said.
“While water contamination can be mitigated by treatment to a certain degree, our findings indicate that disposal of wastewater from both conventional and unconventional oil and gas operations has degraded the surface water and sediments,” said Nathaniel R. Warner, a recent Ph.D. graduate of Duke who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth College.
An industry group, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, was quick to criticize the study, saying that, among other things, it was funded in part by a foundation that has opposed development of Marcellus shale wells.
It also said the researcher’s methodology was flawed because they had taken samples directly at the discharge source.
“That’s like taking an air sample directly from the tailpipe of a car and declaring an air quality crisis,” the organization wrote.