When you say the words “radioactive waste” people automatically assume you are talking about nuclear waste, be it from bombs or power plants. But radioactive waste isn’t just a concern for those who work in the nuclear industry. In fact, radioactive waste is a common byproduct of oil and gas extraction, a problem made more severe by the booming natural gas industry.

Over the last decade, US energy companies have adopted a drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that allows them to bore into shale formations that contain vast amounts of natural gas. The process involves drilling deep into the earth’s crust and blasting high-pressure steams of water into the shale formation. The high pressure of the water causes the shale to fracture, releasing the oil and gas trapped within. These are then collected by the well for refinement, and eventually for use in generating heat and electricity.

A gas well located in the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania.

A gas well located in the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania.

However, the process of fracturing the shale formation also releases subterranean water containing radium, a highly radioactive metal. This radium laced water also makes its way to the surface where it builds up in waste water storage tanks and pipelines. In most states, there are regulations regarding the treatment and disposal of this waste water, but some states have far looser instructions with some allowing it to be buried on-site.

In other states, such as North Dakota, there is very little enforcement of waste disposal procedures. When processing waste water, drilling companies will use filters referred to as “socks” that are designed to strain radioactive elements out of the waste water. In practice, these socks are supposed to be disposed of through licensed haulers and landfills, but they are frequently found in trash dumpsters, ditches, and even abandoned buildings.

Environmental groups and public health organizations are pushing the state government to enact tougher regulations that would require all drilling debris to be disposed of in properly lined landfills. Meanwhile, landfills that currently accept drilling debris are installing radiation detectors and turning haulers away if their debris exceeds safety standards.

Similar measures have been adopted by other gas-rich states such as Pennsylvania and West Virgina, which both lie on the Marcellus shale formation. Last year, the oil and gas industry disposed of 1.3 million tons of waste in Pennsylvania landfills, including 16,000 tons of radioactive waste. This does not include the large amount of debris that drillers have been allowed to bury at drill sites, a disposal method that was only intended as a temporary option.

As the oil and gas industry continues to boom, so too will the number of landfills that will be forced to cope with a huge influx of radioactive waste. Hopefully, state governments can find the initiative to curtail the excesses of an industry that frequently ignores the rules.

Source: Bloomberg