Radioactive mining waste accumulating in PA rivers and streams

This is alarming, additionally so in that it gets more coverage in the UK than in US media. Besides the huge increase in the 100’s of chemical additive used in the gas well fracking process and the millions of gallons of the waste that they have discharged into our state’s rivers and streams for more than a decade, investigators are now finding levels of radioactivity in the sludge collected in waterways and lakes around here that meet the levels that would normally require controlled disposal as radioactive waste.

I’ve been active in the efforts to increase regulation of the frack mining industry in the State of Pennsylvania since it first began to overwhelm our state 12 years ago . What little progress had been made so far is threatened by pending plans by the new Federal agency heads to roll back safety and discharge requirements and even the limits to where fracking can occur. The industry wants state and Federal exemptions that would enable them to completely overrule local zoning restrictions and not have toxic effluents subject to containment, regulation or safe disposal (a version of the infamous “Halliburton Exemption”).

Anyone who enjoys our public waterways, for paddling, swimming and fishing, should be really concerned about this. The Conemaugh watershed is a popular paddling destination in these parts that only emerged from massive coal mining waste devastation due to environmental cleanups (funding with our taxes) in the past 50 years. We don’t seem to learn from history, I’m afraid.

Keep the costs private but give the risks (and costs) to the public.That seems to be the mantra. Keep up the fight willowleaf - it may be tough for a while.

I grew up in the area in the '50s and 60s and remember the Conemaugh then - milky green water with orange rocks. Much better the last time I saw it about 3 years ago.

In recent years, a lot of frac sand is mined in Wisconsin. Several weeks ago, I was working at a construction site at a facility that rented out space on their railroad siding for a frac-sand mining company to use for loading truckloads of sand onto rail cars, and the guy in charge of that facility had some interesting news (this facility had nothing to do with the mining industry - they just happened to own a railroad siding which otherwise would be empty much of the time, and he didn’t mind making a profit off loading rail cars that would only be done somewhere else if not on his property).

He said that when fracking first started, the sand in the nearby area was not marketable, being of a different gradation than that which the oil drillers preferred. Then the oil drillers adopted a new fracking method with a different kind of sand, and suddenly a lot of the sand in the area was worth a fortune. That sounds innocent enough, but with the new fracking method, the rate at which oil could be extracted from the ground was much faster, but the volume of oil which could be retrieved was much less. Because the oil that they could retrieve with the new method could be gotten so fast, the oil companies could get a very rapid return on their investment, and a well would pay for itself much sooner than had previously been possible, and that’s all they cared about. When the oil flow prematurely dried up with the new method, it was time to move to greener pastures, and as far as the well owners cared, to hell with the fact that by using the older fracking method they could have extracted far more oil in the long run. All that matters to these people is how much money they can make in a certain amount of time.

This proves what insiders have been saying for years, that all this talk about having a desire for energy independence is a boat-load of crap. The fact is, nobody in the industry gives a rat’s ass whether the U.S. can provide it’s own fuel 50 or 100 years from now. They’ll all be dead by then, and if it’s a problem for their kids, tough cookies. If they cared, they wouldn’t be using a method that effectively seals huge amounts of oil into the ground forever when there’s already a proven method which, though slower, extracts far more oil from each oil well and therefore pushes the day when the easy oil is all gone much farther into the future. Anyone can see that all they care about is short-term profit, and the shorter the term, the better they like it. I have no doubt that the politicians who promote this way of doing business are every bit as corrupt and/or morally bankrupt, with the exception of those among them who anyone can see are just plain stupid.

This doesn’t touch on your points about environmental risks, known and unknown, associated with fracking, but it does say a lot about the lack of moral integrity of oil-industry leaders and the politicians who cater to their wants. They shout “it’s all about energy independence”, and though this pleases enormously ignorant voters, it’s really all about how much $$ they can get into their filthy hands right now, and the ignorant voters don’t know that their so-called patriotic heroes are happily screwing the whole country in the long run.

You’re absolutely right. I get so steamed about the industry’s sanctimonious flag-waving on “energy independence.” Total BS. They are building two new pipelines and pumping stations across our state, from the Ohio line to Philadelphia, expressly to sell the liquified natural gas to Asia and Europe (whoever will pay the best price, which is low at the moment due to overproduction.)

I was pretty good friends with one of the first drilling company senior field engineers who was sent in to start the fracking operations here in the Marcellus “play” in 2004 – he had worked for Halliburton and Brown and Root while they were developing the technology in the Middle East and probably knew as much about it as anyone. He was an avid outdoorsman, kayaker and skier, and cared about the potential environmental impacts.

At first he was rather defensive about protests against it because he said it could be done safely. But he did admit that the technology was still very inefficient and that they lost as much as 50% of the gas volume to leaks and flaming off, especially when it was done in haste. He eventually got into conflict with his employer when they pressured him to cut corners with his field crews and would not penalize tanker drivers for dumping the contaminated fluids into local waterways instead of impounding them or taking them to processing facilities. He tried to get them to do right and finally gave up and quit (since he knew he was going to be fired and that they were trying to set him up for “due cause.”

My argument has been that if these gas reserves are “so critical for future national energy security” then the rational approach should be to KEEP THEM IN THE GROUND until we have developed cleaner and more productive means of extracting them. I even suggested they be declared a Federal reserve and extraction kept to a fixed and long term sustainable level. The gas is not only being wasted by poor technology in extraction, it is being squandered in what it is mainly being used for: power generation. While there are many different sources for generating power, from coal to hydro to solar to biomass to wind to tidal currents to waste combustion – there are many products that specifically require natural gas including plastics production and the manufacture of synthetic fertilizers (and until we can increase the shift to organic and biodynamic agriculture we are stuck with using synth-fert on our rapidly degrading arable land.) There needs to be a rational national priority on how finite resources are going to be extracted and allocated. But of course this flies in the face of “Capitalism” and the “free market”.

For more than a decade the drillers have been in a reckless free-for-all, creating boom-bust cycles in remote regions in the various “plays”. We’ve already begun to see the effects on rural areas that bought into the boom propaganda – small towns and country crossroads seeing a rapid influx of jobs and money while the mostly out-of-town rigging and drilling crews are in the area, renting motel rooms, eating and drinking at instantly prospering diners and bars, buying supplies and hiring locals for laborer and transport jobs. But a year or two later, after all the wells are dug and the automatic monitors and compressor stations are in place and there are no more jobs, suddenly you see yards full of fancy new “toys” that the locals can no longer afford sporting “for sale” signs – pimped out dual axle pickup trucks, fancy ATV’s and powerboats, shiny new double-wide homes with above ground pools and hot tubs. These people were told that long-term prosperity was being delivered to them and it was a lie. Even the ones who leased their property found themselves, more often than not, being stiffed out of royalties by having “expenses” and “depreciation” deducted or not getting payments at all. Some were even back-charged by the drillers for operations that destroyed large portions of their land for any other future use. The industry is a scam and driven by greed and misinformation. And this does not even touch the groundwater damage they have done and the wells that they have fouled (which they and their well-paid lawyers vigorously deny.)

The industry has lied to the people in the regions where it mines as to the productivity of both individual wells and the extractive yield overall. Most wells experience a steep drop in production after the first year and the majority are not yielding enough after 5 to 10 years to bother to maintain, And statistics have proven that by the 10 year mark, virtually every frack well, even the most carefully double-encased types, has seriously leaked or ruptured at some point. While the industry tries to claim that they have been fracking in the US West for decades with “no problem”, they completely fail to mention that the geology and watersheds here are COMPLETELY different – strata here are more porous, striated, cracked and folded in this most ancient of Western Hemisphere mountain ranges (the Appalachians). I know what’s under our feet – I majored in Geology in a PA college.

My ex lived in the midst of one of the rural fracking boom areas (though one that was already beginning to wane economically 5 years ago.) We often came upon real devastation while hiking in the woods and meadows up there in North Central Pa. We would find untended and leaking “processed water” impoundment reservoirs with stinking sludge and dead wildlife around them, have to move campsites when we discovered that all night drilling with ranks of giant floodlights was going on nearby (even in National and State Forest areas!) and more than once stumbled on great “snakes” of sickly grey sludge oozing out of the ground along hillsides, clearly where a fracking lateral had gone astray in the corrugated terrain and burst through above ground.

Pennsylvania, which has been said to have more miles of streams and rivers than any US state but Alaska (if you look at a topo of the state, you can see why) had only really recovered many of its waterways from coal mining pollution in the last couple of decades of the 20th century – waters had cleared and game fish had been re-established in once-dead streams. Now we have an even bigger threat and too few people remember what it cost us to recover last time. The most precious commodities in the twenty-first century, world wide, are not going to be oil and gas, but arable land and potable water, and we are jeopardize a wealth of both in our state for the benefit of a small number of greedy companies who are killing their own golden goose.

Sorry for the rant – but this is something that really bothers me. And they have been making noises for over a year about putting a huge frack pad with multiple laterals less than a mile uphill from my house (within a densely populated residential section of the Pittsburgh metro area!) on an abandoned golf course. I know that I have defunct coal mines directly beneath a corner of my property, putting it at risk for subsidence and/or gas leakage from adjacent drilling operations. So I have NIMBY as well as overall ethical issues with fracking overall. And i think most Americans would have them too if they were really aware of the issues involved. I am not anti-extractive mining, I am against doing it recklessly, inefficiently and greedily.

@willowleaf said:

My argument has been that if these gas reserves are “so critical for future national energy security” then the rational approach should be to KEEP THEM IN THE GROUND until we have developed cleaner and more productive means of extracting them.

I am not anti-extractive mining, I am against doing it recklessly, inefficiently and greedily.

Your whole “rant” is clearly based on good background knowledge and more people need to hear that stuff. I bet if most Americans knew even just enough to see the common sense that goes into the two sentences of yours which I quoted, the overwhelming view by the public regarding the petroleum industry and the politicians they keep in their back pockets, and their attitudes toward drilling more wells right now, would be completely different than it is. As one example, is the “America First” crowd so amazingly stupid that they are not even able to understand that drilling more wells right now for no other purpose than selling our long-term reserves to China and other countries is not good for our future? Or are they just uninformed? The truth is, they are uninformed. Completely uninformed.

But how do you inform people when outlets of the right-wing and industry backed media have methodically brainwashed so many of our fellow citizens into mistrusting experts and Science, even basic educated discourse? Has so many of them convinced that anyone who backs environmental protection and sane energy and extraction policies is part of an elitist conspiracy of unpatriotic tree-huggers trying to screw them out of jobs.

Just this afternoon, I carefully corrected a Facebook poster on a discussion about climate change who absurdly claimed that Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption had released more CFC’s (yup, he said chlorofluorocarbons!) than humans had throughout history. I explained that CFC’s were anthropogenic (did not use the big word, said they are chemically synthesized by humans and not naturally occurring) and that he might have confused some statistic about the eruption’s particulate ash, which did slow global warming slightly and temporarily for a couple of years but then hastened glacial and ice cap melting when the ash dropped from orbit. His response was that I was a “lying libtard” who “believes fairy tales.” (by the way, his FB profile revealed he was an ardent fan of mentally ill wing-nut conspiracy theory hack, Alex Jones. Argh.)

It’s bad enough when responsible journalism is framed as “fake news” by those who don’t like or agree with what it reports, but when peer-reviewed Science and even higher education is successfully framed as suspect and fraudulent, we are really in trouble.

@willowleaf said:

It’s bad enough when responsible journalism is framed as “fake news” by those who don’t like or agree with what it reports, but when peer-reviewed Science and even higher education is successfully framed as suspect and fraudulent, we are really in trouble.

Amen! Unfortunately it is human behavior that evolved in the paleolithic, and does not serve our species well in the “information age”

I certainly don’t consider myself an " enviro-nazi ", but I do believe that we have a distinct responsibility to leave future generations a planet that is liveable.
I grew up in PA (1957-1964) and remember driving through Pittsburgh when you could barely see three blocks for the smoke from the Bessemer convertors . I also remember when they first started to “reclaim” the strip mines. Stack scrubbers have also brought emissions way down.
That being said, fracking still has a completely unknown long term result. Besides the water and environmental pollution, there is an even worse consideration…earthquakes. You just can’t keep pumping slurry into deep earth without affecting fault lines, as is displayed in parts of Oklahoma as of late. My deepest concern is that long after we current generations have expired, Google Earth photos may reveal a giant “raisin” shaped planet, completely used up and uninhabitable.
As with many aspects of humanity, it ends up being not about right and wrong, but about profit and loss. Somewhere in the near future I hope we can find a happy medium .

Good post Willowleaf, thank you.

Have you presented your Governor with your concerns? It might do more good than blaming “right-wing” news media.

Oh my gosh, Willowleaf, your last post sums up the problem so well. I’m just exacerbated by the degree of lunacy in right-wing media when it comes to their views of science. Yes, there’s lunacy on the far left, but being a person who respects the scientific process and has at least a modicum of understanding of how it works, it just kills me to see the wholesale branding of that process as bunk by the right.

I don’t want to go off on a rant here or risk bringing back the old Bicker and Banter, but one totally comical example that illustrates this perfectly is Fox News’ big story of a few months ago claiming that colleges and universities are actively collaborating to keep their primary staff free of people with Republican viewpoints. That’s not what’s happening at all and anyone with a couple of functioning brain cells should be able to see why. Mainstream Republicans and their backers have been telling us day in and day out for about the last 25 years that science is essentially fraudulent, but since that’s not a mindset that’s compatible with higher learning, it’s only natural that people who believe that kind of nonsense are NOT the same people who are pursuing careers that might lead them to end up on the teaching and research staff at colleges and universities. It couldn’t be any more simple, but Fox had to portray this totally logical example of cause and effect as a huge, highly organized conspiracy. Yes, it was comical, if you don’t think too hard about the fact that their die-hard viewers believed it.

Yes, Magooch, I have done so for nearly 12 years, both as an individual and as a participant in organizations that oppose poorly regulated and reckless expansion of fracking. I’ve written letters and emails, gone to more public hearings and town halls than I can remember and made strong statements at the mike at all of them.

We do have an fairly enlightened Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, but he has tread somewhat lightly on fracking issues and been back and forth on it - he supports a fracking ban in the Delaware River watershed and has signed regulatory legislation and pushed for a severance tax (we are the only state that does not place this on the industry), but he has been accused of trying to cater more to the oil and gas interests this year and was more pro-fracking when he first came into office – I think he changed his stance when he learned more about it and saw what the reality was (that it was NOT going to be a source for increased employment and local prosperity).

Our state Supreme Court ruled a pro-fracking law called Act 13 un-constitutional in 2013 and successfully quelled it. The onerous law enabled natural gas companies to seize privately owned subsurface property through eminent domain, placed a gag order on health professionals to prevent them from getting information on drilling chemicals that could harm their patients, and limited notification of spills and leaks to public water suppliers, excluding owners of private wells that supply drinking water for 25 percent of Pennsylvania residents. Act 13 also pre-empted municipal zoning of oil and gas development. This was a significant victory

Our efforts have really helped to bring public awareness to the dangers of fracking and turned our state’s population more against it than for it, despite heavy marketing by the industry. Unfortunately, it took some nasty well and pipeline blow-outs and stream spills that caused massive fish kills over the past few years to call more attention to what is going on, including an explosion that killed a worker in 2014.

Our neighbor New York State has learned from our experiences here and still has a ban on fracking, as does Vermont, and more recently, Maryland. Ohio allows it and they are having increasing problems with earthquakes, including 77 near Youngstown, which is less than an hour from Pittsburgh, on the state line. We have had earthquakes here too, associated with fracking.

Ironically, it is market forces as much as our protest efforts that have reduced fracking operations in our state. The industry overproduced in their zeal and flooded the market, which lacks the infrastructure to transport and store the volumes that were recklessly extracted. Prices dropped (and property owners became more savvy about fraudulent leases) and it is no longer as profitable to frack gas. It has not stopped, but the rate of expansion has slowed and last year 30% of wells in place had been mothballed.

But PA is still the second largest producer of natural gas after Texas – when you consider our population density and much smaller area (one sixth the size), you can see that we are the most negatively affected state in the boom. And, pertinent to our love of paddling, our state’s extensive watersheds (which drain all the well fields) feed into the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico (via the Ohio to Mississippi). So what goes into the water here will eventually end up in many other waters.

As an aside…
The Green River in Utah goes through a lot of old uranium mines and as the tailings are washed into the Green River, the guides I know are terrified of uranium poisoning when they do the Green. Thus they recommend hauling all of your water and they pay to have shuttles resupply them at Ruby Ranch and Mineral Bottom.
I find this to be uncomfortable as we need 1-gal/day @ 8.5#/gal so a 5 day trip = 42# of water in an overloaded kayak.
So I thought about precipitating the salts out with Alum and contacted the AEC and EPA and neither of these have done any studies on this. No one seems to know how to easily and cheaply remove radioactive materials form drinking water in a camping/paddling situation.
They can tell you how to mount an expensive and complicated system in your house or city but for campers… not!
So I ran some experiments and think that I have found a way to ensure fairly-safe drinking water on the Green River and it all fits into a package the size of an ammo-can.

Now with the Pa waters being contaminated, maybe commercial dealers will come up with a simpler system than is mine.
BUT it is a problem that requires work! unless you like fishing for 3-eyes fish and having children that look like cattle.