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Does Gas Drilling Put Radiation in Texas Water?

With drilling on the rise, the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality answer questions about whether Texans need to worry about radioactivity in their water.

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With new shale discoveries in south-central Texas, the state's natural gas production is poised to grow, as The Texas Tribune reports today.

A variety of environmental concerns have arisen over shale drilling, however. The best-known of these involve chemical pollution of aquifers and the air. A recent New York Times series, focused on Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale, raised additional questions about whether or not radioactive materials are ending up in that state's waterways as a result of wastewater from drilling operations. (State findings released subsequent to the article show that the radiation levels are at or below normal in some streams near drilling operations, but investigations are continuing.)

The Tribune asked the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees the natural gas drilling industry, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state's main environmental regulator, whether Texans need to worry about radioactivity in their water. 

Here are their e-mailed responses (edited slightly for clarity):

From Ramona Nye, Texas Railroad Commission spokeswoman:

In Texas, unlike Pennsylvania, where [hydraulic fracturing] fluid is treated and then discharged to surface waters, the majority of the frac flowback water and produced water in Texas from the oilfield is disposed of in injection disposal wells and back into underground, geologically confined intervals. The commission has issued one authorization to the Barnett Shale Water Conservation Company to dispose of oilfield wastewater in the city of Fort Worth’s water treatment plant. The commission authorizes this proposed disposal provided the TCEQ (which permits discharges from water treatment plants) and the facility owner or operator concur.

Additionally, the commission’s wellbore construction regulations also protect groundwater by requiring several layers of steel casing protection when these injection or disposal wells are built.

While indications are that flow-back fluid from hydraulically fracturing the Marcellus Shale in the northeast, including Pennsylvania, can contain elevated levels of radium-226, Oil and Gas Division Commission staff inform me that they have no indication that radium-226 levels are above regulatory levels in the Barnett Shale or the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas, which are geologically different shales than Pennsylvania Marcellus shale.

Gas wells can bring Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM) to the surface in the cuttings, flow back fluid and production brine, and NORM can accumulate in pipes and tanks (as scale on pipe after long periods of time).

Oil and gas NORM waste must be managed in accordance with the provisions of the Railroad Commission’s rules at 16 TAC Chapter 4. Operators are required to monitor for the presence of oil and gas NORM, and if the levels exceed the permissible level of activity at a particular site, the site must have requisite placards alerting persons to its existence. NORM waste may only be disposed of at sites that are specifically permitted for oil and gas NORM waste disposal.

From Terry Clawson, TCEQ spokesman:

The TCEQ Water Supply Division ensures that all community public water systems are tested for radiation in accordance with the federal Radionuclides Rule. The TCEQ does not have jurisdiction to regulate private water wells; therefore, we do not monitor them for Raionuclides. The TCEQ Water Supply Division sampling has not detected elevated levels of radionuclides in public water systems located near gas-drilling sites. The Railroad Commission of Texas has the authority and responsibility to oversee drilling and related disposal activities in the state of Texas.

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