WHEELING - The natural gas wastewater that GreenHunter Water plans to recycle in Warwood can contain trace amounts of radioactive radium and radon, according to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
A section of Wheeling City Code forbids radioactivity from occurring within city limits if it is going to exceed the federal standards, which were established during the Cold War in 1957. City code specifically defines radioactivity as a "nuisance element," listing it alongside noise, vibration, glare, smoke, odor, air pollution, dust, liquid waste, solid waste or heat.
There is no indication yet if the city will look into enforcing the ordinance to prohibit GreenHunter Water from operating within municipal limits. One of the issues Wheeling would have in attempting to enforce the ordinance - Article 1343.05 (a10) of city code - is that it has no means to test for radioactivity, said Tom Connelly, assistant director of city's Economic and Community Development Department.
Photo by Casey Junkins
John Jack, left, GreenHunter Water vice president of business development, discusses the company’s site plans for the Warwood facility with members of Wheeling City Council and several “Wheeling Water Warriors” during a tour.
"We don't have people to monitor this," he said when asked about the radioactivity provision. "I have reached out to the agencies that would be responsible for monitoring it. I am still waiting for a clear answer."
GreenHunter's process removes suspended solids from the recycled frack water. John Jack, the company's vice president of business development, admits trace amounts of chemicals and salts will remain in the water including radium, uranium and radon.
Jack said while the elements are radioactive, they are minuscule in volume.
Those minuscule levels of radioactivity have not stopped drilling waste from setting off radiation alarms at Pennsylvania landfills, which happened more than 1,000 times in 2012, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The Pennsylvania DEP stressed the data to date indicates there is no public health risk.
Jack said all GreenHunter employees will wear radiation monitors while working at the Wheeling site.
Officials with both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection said their agencies do not consider the radioactive materials found in drilling waste to be dangerous.
"The waste material from the fracking production process, referred to as brine, can contain non-Atomic Energy Act radioactive materials such as radon and diffuse forms of radium," said NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan, noting his organization does not regulate such radiation.
"If you're asking if the DEP Office of Oil and Gas has specific rules relating to radioactivity at well sites, the answer is no," added West Virginia DEP spokesman Thomas Aluise.
Aluise pointed to the Horizontal Well Control Act of 2011 that required DEP to study radioactivity at frack water impoundments. He said the tests showed the radiological exposure from the materials in these pits to be "within acceptable limits."
Calls to the Wheeling EPA office were referred to the Philadelphia office. Messages left there were not immediately returned.