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Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material from Fracking Wastewater

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection recently released the results of its approximate two-year study on the effects of radiation in produced-fracking wastewater on workers handling the material from creation at the pad to disposal at landfills. The study is known as the TENORM study and it concluded that there is little possibility of harm to workers and the public regarding radiation exposure due to oil and gas operations. The study did, however, indicate that there is a potential long-term disposal issue and that further consideration is needed. The study also called for further study of radiological impacts on the use of brine for dust suppression and road stabilization due to radiation exposure to recreationists using roads treated with brine from conventional natural gas wells.

TENORM stands for Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material. NORM, or, Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material, is naturally occurring and a part of everyday life in the food we eat, the products we use, the ground we live on, and from the sun and deep space. NORM can become TENORM when materials are mixed together, moved, or somehow otherwise exposed to higher levels of radioactivity. NORM and TENORM exist in many places, ranging from industrial waste to the local water treatment plant. Radium and Radon are the principal way to measure the radioactivity in NORM and TENORM. The majority of radioactivity in TENORM is found in uranium and thorium.

Pennsylvania has a unique geology containing several areas with relatively high levels of natural uranium and thorium. In the late 1970s, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Bureau of Radiation Protection (BRP) began planning for a state-wide radon study due to studies revealing a high incidence of radon reported in homes. In the 1990s, the BRP and Oil and Gas Bureau also performed a TENORM study of produced water for a number of conventional oil and gas wells. In 2001, BRP and the Bureau of Solid Waste developed radiation monitoring regulations for all Pennsylvania solid waste disposal facilities under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Subtitle D for produced water and brine. There is no direct federal regulation for TENORM; instead, regulation of such waste is left up to individual states and only twelve states have regulations concerning TENORM.

The TENORM study began in January 2013 when the DEP, at the direction of Governor Corbett, developed a report based on the study of radioactivity levels in ongoing produced and flow-back waters and brines, radon in natural gas levels, pipe scale causing worker exposure, metal recycle concerns, treatment solids and drill cuttings, along with transportation, storage and disposal of drilling wastes relating to DOT transport and landfill limits. Within this study, a mini-study focused on radon levels in natural gas to ascertain the risks to public health and the environment.

The results of this study comes to the ire of local Van Buren Township, Michigan residents, whose township will accept the fracking wastewater from a Pennsylvania drilling company via USEcology, the owner of Wayne Disposal, the landfill located outside the township. This landfill will now be one of the few facilities in the United States capable of accepting TENORM waste. Wayne Disposal will accept the waste after an adjacent USEcology facility mixes the TENORM with inert substances to an acceptable radioactive level of 50 picoruries per gram. The panel appointed by Michigan Governor Ricky Snyder relied on a study by the North Dakota Department of Health, a state with intense drilling activities, on the risks of accepting TENORM in landfills. The study found that natural gas workers and the general public face risks below the federal standard for maximum radioactive doses. Nevertheless, the North Dakota Department of Health's study advised restricting annual TENORM volumes at landfills to 25,000 tons per year and the radioactivity levels of the waste to no more than 50 picocuries per gram in order to minimize risks to workers. The Michigan panel also took into consideration concerns regarding inhalation exposure to Radium-226, commonly found in TENORM, which decays to radon 222, a potential carcinogen, by restricting TENORM placement to at least 10 feet below the bottom of a landfill cap.

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