Even as the state announced Monday that water sampling on seven Pennsylvania rivers found no radiation problems related to Marcellus Shale wastewater, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency urged additional testing and said it will take a significantly more active role in reviewing permits and environmental impacts from the discharges.
In a letter to acting state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer, the EPA said municipal drinking water systems near sewage treatment plants receiving Marcellus Shale wastewater should be required to conduct expedited and more frequent radiation testing, and offered to work with the state to formulate a testing plan.
The EPA letter also said that the pollution permits of all sewage treatment plants accepting gas well wastewater must be amended to include provisions for its treatment. It urged the state to establish monitoring requirements and effluent limits for those facilities that "ensure protection of drinking water and aquatic life," and asked the DEP to provide a list of sewage treatment plants that accept the wastewater and a schedule for completing the permit modifications.
"I stand ready to provide EPA's support and to utilize our federal authorities to require drinking water and wastewater monitoring if that becomes necessary," Shawn Garvin, EPA Region III administrator, wrote in the three-page letter. "In addition, EPA is prepared to exercise its enforcement authorities as appropriate where our investigations reveal violations of federal law."
The EPA's more active regulatory position on Marcellus Shale water issues follows Friday's visit to the Philadelphia regional office by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
In a written response Monday evening, Mr. Krancer said the DEP is evaluating the EPA letter and twice mentioned that natural gas development will play a key role in future energy needs.
"We at DEP know what our responsibilities are," Mr. Krancer said. "We will focus on protecting public safety and the environment and we will do that with facts and science. We will work with EPA to be sure that it is aware of everything we are doing in Pennsylvania in that regard."
Jan Jarrett, president and chief executive officer of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, a statewide environmental group active on Marcellus issues, welcomed the EPA's intervention, and said the agency has authority under the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act to require the state to appropriately regulate the industry.
"Drilling in Pennsylvania has taken off fast and the state has been playing catch-up for two years now," Ms. Jarrett said. "The EPA is sending a strong signal to the DEP that it's looking over the state's shoulder to make sure it carries out its duties."
The DEP's water quality monitoring for radioactive materials, done over the past four months, found radiation levels at or below normal naturally occurring background levels for radium 226 and 228, and below the federal safe drinking water standard of 5 picocuries per liter. The sampling was done on raw water in the rivers and creeks at locations where public water suppliers have intakes.
Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources, one of the biggest drilling companies in the state, said the test results confirm that radiation from Marcellus Shale well operations is not a concern.
"The DEP has now indicated, for the second time in three years, that radioactive material is not a constituent of concern," Mr. Pitzarella said. "We still encourage regular testing. Radioactivity is a scary word, but it's important to use good science and apply proper context to the issue when discussing it."
The DEP tested water from the Monongahela River at Charleroi in Washington County; South Fork Tenmile Creek in Greene County; Conemaugh River bordering Westermoreland and Indiana counties; Allegheny River at Kennerdell in Venango County; Beaver River in Lawrence County; Tioga River in Tioga County, and the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in Lycoming County.
According to industry documents cited by The New York Times in articles last week, radiation was found in much higher concentrations in wastewater samples at 116 of 179 deep gas wells.
John Hanger, the former DEP secretary, said he wasn't surprised by the testing results.
"I'm pleased by it, of course, as all Pennsylvanians should be," Mr. Hanger said. "The results demonstrate powerfully that the concerns raised by The Times articles were false and Pennsylvania runs a stringent oversight program for the gas drilling industry."
Kathryn Klaber, president and executive officer of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry lobbying and advocacy organization, said the state's radiation sampling results are "encouraging," and underscore the effectiveness of state regulation.
After DEP released the testing results, the Marcellus Shale Coalition announced it was establishing a $100,000 fund to help support water testing associated with Marcellus Shale natural gas development and water treatment. The coalition said it also is initiating an "Energy Research Collaborative," composed of representatives from government, industry, academia and other interested groups to advance scientific research associated with shale gas development.
Even though the DEP water sampling didn't show a problem, Pennsylvania American Water, which has 209,000 customers in Allegheny, Washington and Fayette counties, said it will still conduct additional radiological testing at its plant intakes along the Monongahela, Allegheny and Clarion rivers and Two Lick Creek in Indiana County.
"This additional testing will help provide a more comprehensive picture by measuring levels of regulated radium (radium-226 and radium-228), gross alpha, gross beta, strontium, tritium and uranium in the raw water sources," said Gary Lobaugh, a company spokesman. "Pennsylvania American Water will continue to work with the DEP and EPA to provide additional analysis of the region's rivers and the safety of our drinking water."
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.