Pennsylvania is expanding the scope of water tests to screen for radioactive pollutants and other contaminants from its booming natural gas drilling industry, but state officials insisted they aren't doing it because federal regulators prodded them.
The state Department of Environmental Protection's acting secretary, Michael Krancer, wrote Wednesday to the Environmental Protection Agency to say that he has requested additional testing of treated water from some drinking water suppliers and wastewater treatment facilities.
Those steps, he said, were in the works before the EPA's regional administrator, Shawn Garvin, sent a March 7 letter asking Pennsylvania to begin more water testing to make sure drinking water isn't being contaminated by drilling wastewater. The state's requests for additional testing, however, were issued later in March.
The tests should check for radium, uranium and the salty dissolved solids that could potentially make drilling wastewater harmful to human health and the aquatic environment, according to copies of letters the DEP said it sent to 14 public water authorities and 25 wastewater facilities.
In his letter last month, Garvin pointed out that most treatment facilities are unable to remove many of the pollutants in the often-toxic drilling water. Substances of concern, he said, include radioactive contaminants, organic chemicals, metals and salty dissolved solids. It was the first major foray by the EPA into the way Pennsylvania is regulating the energy industry's hot pursuit of the nation's largest-known natural gas reservoir, the Marcellus Shale. Regulation had largely been left to the state until now.
In his response to Garvin, Krancer seemed to bridle at the perceived suggestion that Pennsylvania isn't doing its job.
"Rest assured that well before receiving your letter, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been focusing on issues relating to natural gas drilling, and prioritizes protecting the environment and public health and safety above all else," Krancer wrote.
Garvin also had asked Pennsylvania to re-examine permits previously issued to the treatment plants handling the waste, saying they lacked "critical provisions." Krancer responded that requirements to monitor for substances of concern will be added to permits upon renewal and where warranted.
Krancer also said his agency is seeking money to add more water-quality testing stations on Pennsylvania's rivers. The state already is testing at seven spots on Pennsylvania's waterways that are downriver from treatment plants that accepted Marcellus Shale wastewater, but upriver from public drinking water intakes.
An EPA spokeswoman, Donna Heron, said Thursday that her agency received Pennsylvania's letter and is reviewing it.
"We will continue to work closely with the state of Pennsylvania on all the issues involving Marcellus Shale," she said in a statement.
Most big gas states require drillers to dump their wastewater into deep shafts drilled into the earth to prevent it from contaminating surface water. Although it has moved to limit it, Pennsylvania still allows hundreds of millions of gallons of the partially treated drilling wastewater to be discharged into rivers from which communities draw drinking water.
The Marcellus Shale formation lies primarily beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio; Pennsylvania, however, is the center of activity, with more than 2,000 wells drilled in the past three years and many thousands more planned.
Drilling for gas in deep shale deposits is emerging as a major new source of energy that supporters say is homegrown, cheap and friendlier environmentally than coal or oil.
But shale drilling requires injecting huge volumes of water underground to help shatter the rock _ a process called hydraulic fracturing. Some of that water returns to the surface, in addition to the gas, as ultra-salty brine tainted with metals like barium and strontium, trace radioactivity and small amounts of toxic chemicals injected by the drilling companies.
Before Garvin's letter, water suppliers typically tested only occasionally for radium, and it had been years since the utilities drawing from rivers in the affected drilling region had done those tests.
The Tri County Joint Municipal Authority, which draws water from the Monongahela River about halfway between Pittsburgh and the West Virginia border, collected the newly required samples last Thursday for the first time and sent them to its private laboratory. The authority, which has about 3,500 customers in about a half-dozen municipalities, was supposed to begin the tests in the fourth quarter of 2011, then found out from the DEP last month that it wanted the tests right away, general manager Jeff Kovach said.
"As soon as I got the letter from the DEP, I just forwarded it on to our testing lab to make sure we get the proper bottles and everything we need," Kovach said.
He didn't know how much the additional testing would cost but had decided to conduct tests anyway because of concerns from his customers about drilling pollutants, he said.
In 2008, Kovach said, the authority twice exceeded the federal maximum for contaminants known as trihalomethanes, which can cause cancer if people drink tainted water for many years. Water customers immediately worried that it was from gas drilling, although Kovach said there's no way to know what caused it.
Some Pennsylvania drilling wastewater is reused or trucked out-of-state for disposal underground. Of the wastewater that was taken to treatment plants in recent months, the great majority went to seven plants that discharge into the Allegheny River, the Mahoning River, the Conemaugh River, the Blacklick Creek, the Monongahela River, the Susquehanna River and the South Fork Ten-mile Creek.
Last month, the DEP said earlier tests from those seven waterways showed no harmful levels of radium, which exists naturally underground and is sometimes found in drilling wastewater that gushes from wells.
Radium that is swallowed or inhaled can accumulate in a person's bones. Long-term exposure increases the risk of developing several diseases, such as lymphoma, bone cancer, and diseases that affect the formation of blood, EPA said.
In August, the Department of Environmental Protection, under Krancer's predecessor, won approval of rules that will make it difficult for a new treatment plant to accept drilling wastewater, unless it has expensive distilling equipment. In the meantime, the industry has been working to reduce the amount of waste sent to rivers.
The rules rely partly on tight controls of which plants are discharging the waste, and Pennsylvania has not always been able to track where all of the water is going. An Associated Press review, published in January, found that a good portion of the wastewater was unaccounted for, with some going to at least one plant that hadn't received the proper permissions from regulatory bodies.
The EPA is currently planning a nationwide study on the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water and groundwater.