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Time is short to avert shale industry’s imminent radioactive dilemma

Shane Thielges | Shale Plays Media

Debate surrounding the health effects of hydraulic fracturing tends to center around a few figurehead issues. The potential for oil spills from wells or pipelines, air and noise pollution from drilling activities and contamination of underground drinking water supplies often dominate the conversation, prompting ill-informed standoffs between a public concerned for its safety and regulators trying to manage a burgeoning but lucrative industry.

Easily overlooked in the fracas is a topic more at home in discussions of the nuclear energy industry: the storage of radioactive materials. Rapidly increasing shale development is creating more and more irradiated byproducts, and energy companies are facing mounting challenges in properly disposing of them.


The Marcellus shale formed in the Devonian Period, when limbed “fishapods” like these roamed the seas. Graphic by Dave Souza, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia

The fracking process is designed to reach shale formations deep below the earth’s surface. The pockets of crude oil and natural gas trapped within are mostly comprised of the decayed bodies of sea creatures that lived millions of years ago. This means shale formations tend to exist alongside reservoirs of extremely salty water and radioactive minerals. In order to access and gather the petroleum, drillers have to break through and carry a lot of this radioactive matter back to the surface.

The irradiated matter is known as TENORM – Technologically-Enhanced, Naturally-Occurring Radioactive Material. Unlike radioactive material created by human activity, such as nuclear fission and fusion, it occurs naturally but is brought into potentially hazardous proximity by human activity.

Typical radionuclides found in shale include uranium, thorium, radium and lead. They have been identified since the 1930s and are commonly used to survey for potential drill sites.

TENORM from oil and gas drilling comes in many forms. Broken bits of mineral known as “drill cuttings” are created when a well’s hole is bored. Water that comes from the well, whether it’s pumped in or from a reservoir, picks up dissolved minerals on its way to the surface and is called “brine.” It can also create a muddy mix of saltwater and minerals called “sludge” or leave a residue called “mineral scale” on equipment.

In small doses, TENORM is manageable. Irradiated water can be treated to remove solid contaminants and reused for fracking. Solid radioactive material is encased in cement and stored in a landfill.

The problem is, thanks to the shale boom the country is no longer facing TENORM in small doses. Production totals, rig counts and energy profits are all at record levels and growing.  The more we drill, the more radioactive matter we bring to the surface, and the less idea we have of what to do with it.


This magnified sample shows the diverse mineral makeup of drill cuttings. Image by Mudgineer CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia

Pennsylvania has encountered a number of incidents recently in attempting to dispose of waste properly. Gas drilling there occurs in the Marcellus shale, which is unusually radioactive at about three times the amount of comparable formations. Last May a shipment of sludge was rejected by the Arden Landfill for exceeding the state’s safety level for radioactivity, forcing energy company Range Resources to have it sent to West Virginia’s Meadow Landfill for disposal. In response, West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection barred the state from taking any further shipments, pending an investigation that is still ongoing.

Earlier this month, a similar occurrence saw radioactive water and sludge from a Range Resources impoundment sent to Michigan’s Wayne Disposal. Once again, state officials responded by barring future shipments. State Senator Rick Jones has already proposed legislation to make the order law.

Other nearby states, including Connecticut and New Jersey, have similar bans on waste storage.

Related: States pass the buck on radioactive waste disposal

Obviously, taking the potential for exposure and radiation sickness seriously is important. Though TENORM from oil and gas drilling is generally low in concentration – the EPA calls its impact “negligible” – energy companies are now producing too much to deal with. Even if waste is only mildly radioactive, landfills can still only accept a limited amount at a time.

If, as projections promise, shale production continues to rise and brings TENORM creation with it, and if even some of that material exceeds Pennsylvania’s radiatioactive storage limit, where is it all going to go?

Morgan Wagner, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, told Shale Plays Media the state has no current plans to address waste storage concerns. He deferred to an ongoing DEP study of the effects of TENORM, saying the Department will “use the information provided in the study and other relevant information to determine if any changes to the waste disposal protocol or the department’s regulations are necessary.” If such changes are recommended, he said, “a revised protocol or regulation will be published for full public review and comment prior to implementation.”

The DEP study began in January of 2013, but has thus far only taken readings of radiation levels at various drilling-related sites like well pads and water impoundments. No review of waste storage procedures has been proposed.

North Dakota has dealt with its share of radioactive problems, too. The radioactivity limit for state landfills is so low it’s effectively a ban, forcing energy companies to look elsewhere for disposal solutions. Some send waste to other states, but many – for economic reasons and lack of options – end up illegally dumping or stashing it. In March, for example, hundreds of garbage bags stuffed full of irradiated filter socks and other equipment were found stashed in an abandoned gas station in Noonan, ND.

At such high concentrations of radionuclides, the potential for negative health effects is anything but “negligible.” U.S. Ecology Inc., a waste management company, recommended the state take serious measures to address rampant illegal dumping or risking attaining superfund status.


Modern container used for nuclear waste transportation. By Bill Ebbesen CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia

Trying to limit exposure by controlling how much waste landfills can accept is well-intentioned, but closing that door without opening another ultimately means waste will be discarded in much more unsafe ways.

All signs point to the problem getting worse. According to the EPA, wells tend to produce a higher percent of water as they age, which means every existing shale well is a ticking time bomb waiting to unleash an irradiated deluge. And optimistic lifetime U.S. shale production estimates ensure many new wells will add to the equation.

The federal government has taken a hands-off approach to drilling regulation, and states are hesitant to potentially invite waste from across the nation. Nevertheless, America is banking on fracking for its economic future and TENORM is an unavoidable consequence. Someone needs to bite the bullet and develop a long-term waste storage solution, or the country will end up with an exponentially worse health problem than it started with.


Correction 8/29: This article previously incorrectly stated that exposure to TENORM could potentially cause radiation sickness, an acute medical disorder. It has been edited to correct this error.


  1. Shane,
    Not a bad overview of the TENORM problem. But one statement you make is way off the mark. And that is where you write “At such high concentrations of radionuclides, the potential for radiation sickness is anything but “negligible.” Fact of the matter is that under no plausible scenario could exposure to TENORM cause someone to get a radiation dose high enough to cause radiation sickness. Absolutely no way. We need to be careful because, while radioactive materials do present some risks that ought to be dealt with responsibly, these types of inflammatory statements contribute to the radiation-phobia that has affected so much of our society.

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