Two large Pennsylvania water providers said Wednesday they planned to immediately test public water supplies in response to outcry over a news report that radioactive gas-drilling wastewater may have been discharged into the state's streams.
The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and Pennsylvania American Water Co. said they hoped the tests in the next few weeks would address fears that public drinking water is imperiled by Marcellus Shale gas drilling.
"We want to know if there is a problem here," said Stanley States, director of water quality and production for the Pittsburgh authority, which plans to take monthly radiological samples at its two treatment plants for the next year. "We need data."
Pennsylvania American, which has five treatment plants in and around Pittsburgh that are near gas-drilling operations, will conduct "a battery of radiological tests during the next few weeks," said Terry M. Maenza, a spokesman for the company headquartered in Hershey.
"We expect there will be no cause for concern," he said.
Public officials, environmental advocates, and industry representatives have called on regulators to require more frequent testing of Pennsylvania water supplies after the New York Times reported Sunday that some radioactive wastewater is sent to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water.
The report focused on discharges in Western and north-central Pennsylvania, where drillers are active. No producing wells are active in the Delaware River basin, which provides the Philadelphia region with drinking water.
The Times reported that some wastewater from Marcellus Shale gas-drilling contained radioactivity at levels higher than previously known. Radioactive materials such as uranium and radium occur naturally in deep rock formations and are brought to the surface in wastewater associated with hydraulic fracturing, the controversial technique that drillers use to release natural gas locked up in the mile-deep formation.
Though the Times reported that some wastewater at well sites contained elevated radioactivity, the potential health effects are unclear because little testing has been conducted since the shale boom took off three years ago.
Prolonged ingestion of the low-level radioactive material is believed to increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Brief skin contact with the wastewater is not considered dangerous.
"Drinking water with elevated levels of radium and uranium - which are found in virtually all rock, soil, and water - may cause cancer after several years," the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says on its website.
Elevated radiation levels can be reduced with treatment, according to some environmental agencies that tell homeowners with private wells that standard water softeners can reduce radium and that more expensive reverse-osmosis systems can remove uranium and radium.
The EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection require radiological testing infrequently in areas with no history of radioactive contamination. The Pittsburgh system last tested its water for radioactivity in 2005, States said.
"If we find something elevated, we'll certainly bring it to the regulators' attention right away," he said.
The cost of the tests is not a factor. States said an Indiana laboratory would charge about $150 for each test.
U.S. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D., Pa.) was among the officials who this week called on regulators to require more frequent testing.
But regulators have stopped short of ordering more tests.
Richard Yost, an EPA spokesman, said Monday the agency was examining radioactivity as part of a two-year national study of hydraulic fracturing.
"While we conduct this study, we will not hesitate to take any steps under the law to protect Americans whose health may be at risk," he said in an e-mail.
Katherine Gresh, a Pennsylvania DEP spokeswoman, said the agency was awaiting results of radium tests on water samples collected in November and December from seven rivers: the Monongahela at Charleroi; the Tioga; the West Branch of the Susquehanna; the Conemaugh; the Allegheny; the Beaver; and the South Fork of Ten Mile Creek. "Requiring more frequent testing is definitely under consideration," she said.
Wastewater has become a huge challenge for the Marcellus industry, which recycles about 70 percent of its wastewater.
The Susquehanna River Basin Commission has conducted some tests of radioactivity in Marcellus streams, said Andy Gavin, manager of restoration and protection. The tests indicated no contamination.
But commission officials caution that the samples were drawn from smaller tributaries upstream from sewage-treatment plants, so they would not detect radiation from wastewater legally disposed of at the plants, but only contamination from spills or illegal dumping.
"We're still collecting baseline information," Gavin said.
Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or firstname.lastname@example.org.