In April residents from Youngstown’s Brier Hill neighborhood joined with Frack Free Mahoning (FFM) to appeal an order made in March by Richard Simmers, the Chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management (DOGRM) to authorize Industrial Waste Control/Ground Tech., Inc. (IWC) to operate a facility at 240 Sinter Court, Youngstown. This facility will receive potentially radioactive brine, drill cuttings, drilling mud and tank bottom sludge from shale gas fracking operations. At the location along the Mahoning River, three-fourths of a mile due west of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the company will do tank cleaning, radioactive decontamination, radiological surveys, waste storage, waste characterization, waste treatment, waste solidification and waste preparation for shipment (i.e. down-blending of radioactive frack waste.) The ODNR received the permit application on February 7th, and the DOGRM chief ordered its approval on March 6th. Unfortunately ODNR did not release the information to the public until April 10th, after the 30-day public comment period had expired.
The first public knowledge of this order occurred when my wife, Susie Beiersdorfer, co-founder of FFM, received notification from Teresa Mills of the Center for Environmental Health and Justice. Teresa had requested all permit applications from the ODNR on February 11th and, after two months of ODNR’s obfuscation and delays, finally received the permit application on April 10th. Youngstown’s Mayor, City Council and Planning Department only found out after Susie went public with the information. The Director of Mahoning County’s Emergency Management Agency had no record of the application until Susie contacted them on May 12. The Youngstown Business Journal was the first local media to inform the public on April 21st. The appeal was filed on April 22nd and FFM held a press conference on April 23rd, which was reported by The Business Journal, but ignored by the other local print and television news.
The facility in Youngstown is not unique in that DOGRM Chief Simmers issued almost identical orders to a total of 23 facilities in the state. A major public concern regarding each of these orders is that ODNR has no regulatory authority over the facilities because ODNR has yet to write the rules. At the present time ODNR does not have any authority to inspect or enforce any violations because there are no rules authorizing ODNR to do so.
Radionuclides pose a threat to human health because the radiation the atoms emit can cause damage to our cells, resulting in cancer. The danger from radium (Ra) is that it behaves similarly to Calcium and can get into our bones if we ingest it. The subsequent radioactive decay can damage cells and result in cancer. The health damage from radon (Rn) gas occurs when it is inhaled and adheres to lung tissue. The subsequent radioactive decay can damage lung cells and result in lung cancer – a leading cause for non-smokers. Because Uranium (U) decays too slowly, its radioactive decay has not been linked with cancer. The main health impact of U is kidney damage.
The common unit of measuring radioactive decay in the U.S. is the picocurie (0.037 decays per second or one decay every 27 seconds). The US EPA safe drinking water limit for Ra is 5 picocuries per liter which is about 5 parts per trillion. The Ohio revised code sets the TENORM limit at 5pCi/g above natural background. According to the application, IWC considers 6.99 pCi/g to be the regulatory limit, which is most likely 5 pCi/g plus the U.S. EPA designated background of 2 pCi/g. The recommended EPA method for measuring Ra in drinking water samples entail precipitating the Ra out of solution with barium sulfate and can take up to 21 days to get an analysis. A University of Iowa study suggests this method is inappropriate for fracking flow-back due to complications from the tremendous amounts of dissolved chemicals in solution. They suggest that gamma spectroscopy, using a high-purity germanium detector, is a more accurate method to measure Ra in fracking flow-back. This method also takes 21 days to complete. According to the application, Austin Masters Services LLC will use in-situ counting equipment. According to the May “Shale Sheet”, the company will be using “in-situ gamma spectroscopy” and the analysis only takes minutes. No information is provided on what type of detector will be used and how well it works on tons of drill cuttings. A public records request by the Fresh Water Accountability Project reveals that Austin Master Services has applied for Trade Secret Designation for its technique. The company director has not returned my phone call.
The concentration of U in shale (4 parts per million (ppm) is typical) is twice that of other sedimentary rocks such as sandstone and limestone. Organic shale was mined for its U during the early years of atomic bomb manufacturing. Oak Ridge Tennessee, the city the atomic bomb built, was located where it stands today because of proximity to the U-rich Chattanooga Shale. Another reason was because it is situated in a 17-mile long valley between two ridges – a geologic shield in case the facilities at Oak Ridge exploded.
The reason for the potential radioactive risks associated with shale is identical to the reason the shale is being fracked – organic matter. To better understand this we need to take a quick look at the chemistry of U. If memories of chemistry class are too traumatic, I suggest you skip ahead. There is the old joke of an atom walking into a bar and saying, “I think I lost an electron!” The bartender replies, “Are you sure?” which leads to the punch line, “I’m positive!” The loss of electrons is called oxidation and results in the rust of iron and the green color of weathered copper. Uranium has different oxidation states, with the two most common in nature being +4 (uranous) and +6 (uranyl.) Uranyl (oxidized) U dissolves readily in surface waters, whereas the uranous U will precipitate out of solution to deposit minerals in reducing (opposite of oxidizing) environments, such as organic rich shale layers. The scientific punch line is, the presence of organic matter in shale, which makes it valuable for fracking, is also responsible for the radioactive contamination.
In 1981 the U.S. Geological Survey published Marcellus shale U contents 10 to 20 times greater than average shale (41.1 ppm in Knox County, OH; 83.7 ppm in upstate NY.) The flow-back from the Marcellus is also high in radionuclides. A Duke University study of sediments down stream from an industrial brine treatment facility along Black Lick Creek, a tributary of the Allegheny River in western PA, measured Ra concentrations (14.7 to 237 pCi/g) that were up to 200 times greater than upstream. This contamination is attributed to the Marcellus fracking flow-back fluids that were released at the facility. Since similar PA fluids were pumped in the D&L Northstar 1 well in Youngstown and are presently accepted at the Patriot Water Treatment facility in Warren, Ohio, it is reasonable to suspect that over 20 million gallons of untreated radioactive-contaminated fluids were pumped under Youngstown and are also regularly released into into northeast Ohio's Mahoning River. The Mahonning is a tributary of the Beaver River, a source of drinking water for communities in western PA. With oil companies in PA producing 16,000 tons of radioactive materials in 2013, disposal of these tremendous amounts of radioactive drilling wastes is a serious on-going problem.
The 450 million year old Utica Shale is the oldest U.S. shale being fracked. The U present has had a longer time to undergo radioactive decay and the daughter products of Ra and Rn should have reached a chemical balance. Unfortunately little to no information has been published on the U, Ra and Rn content of the Utica shale. A search of the Georef bibliographic database yields no results. This lack of information did not stop the Ohio Legislature in 2013 from defining the shale gas drill cuttings in Ohio as beneficial material, which can be used to line landfills or spread on farmers’ fields. Exemptions for the radioactive drill cuttings were inserted into the 4,000-page Ohio budget at the last minute, after little to no debate. In fact, Governor Kasich’s request to have the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) oversee the radioactive waste was rejected in favor of the ODNR – an agency with little to no expertise in radionuclide risk to the environment and public health. ODNR’s order allows IWC to down-blend radioactively-hot fracking-waste, a process forbidden by the ODH for all other radioactive waste.
Radioactive waste from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota received a lot of attention in February when hundreds of radioactive filter socks where discovered in an abandoned gas station near the Canadian Border. In 2011, Houston, TX Television station KHOU exposed a government cover-up of radioactive contamination in drinking water. According to the report, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, lowered radiation test results in drinking water so that local water agencies could avoid informing residents of the increased health risk, violating federal EPA rules.
In summary, radioactive frack-waste will be trucked to Youngstown, tested in minutes using a secret technique by a limited liability corporation, under no rules from the ODNR. As you would imagine, the nearby citizens of Brier Hill are very concerned. It was only through citizen action that the public was made aware of the potential risks of trucking radioactive fracking waste through Youngstown. These risks include accidents, spills, explosions and/or fires. ODNR ordered the company to begin work without any public comment and has no rules with which to inspect and regulate what’s happening there. Local politicians appear uninformed and unconcerned, that is until something harmful happens. I think it’s important to keep in mind that passage of the Citizen’s Bill of Rights to amend the Youngstown City Charter last election would have prevented this from happening in the first place. Columbus voters will have a similar opportunity to ban fracking in the near future.