Radiation and Fracking

Posted Mar 5, 2020, by Kristen Locy

CCJ Pathways of Exposure

Pathways of Exposure Infographic

Find more information on our Radioactive Fracking Resource page

In many ways this is a complicated topic, but in other ways it is quite simple. The Marcellus shale that sits beneath the surface of the earth we stand on is naturally radioactive. When it is fracked to release natural gas, it brings these radioactive compounds up with it to the surface. If not “recycled” by the industry, drilling waste is sent to municipal landfills or injected into the earth. As a result, radionuclides are finding their way into our rivers, our soil, and our community.

It is common knowledge that radiation is not something you want to be exposed to. Any exposure to ionized radiation has the potential to harm the human body. The research on the dangers of radiation exposure is indisputable. In the 1920s, radium was painted on watches to make them glow in the dark, and workers who were exposed to radium through this practice faced the horrifying consequences of radiation exposure. They live on in history as “The Radium Girls” and their story shows the horrific reality of an industry prioritizing profits over human life.  Nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima live in our collective memory. Those who lived through the cold war lived through the constant threat of nuclear warfare, and to date we scoff at the campaign in the memories of our grandparents that “Duck and Cover” would have saved them from a nuclear disaster. We all get x-rays and wear lead vests to protect us. People with cancer are treated with radiation, and it is common thought that cancer treatment is extremely detrimental to the body. In Canonsburg is one of the first EPA Superfund sites in the country, where uranium used in the Manhattan project was refined. In many ways, radiation is a part of our modern lives. It either feels strictly regulated, such as with military or medical use, or feels very distant, as with the atomic bomb the US used in WWII.

But what if radiation was knowingly released into your environment under the watch of industry, regulators, and the highest levels of our government? None of this is secret information. It’s publicly available research and documentation that has recently been again brought to the attention of the public through the hard work of various journalists and organizations. There is, however, a question of  whether the public can grasp the magnitude of what is and has happened and whether we as organizers can empower enough people to stand up against the industry and their own government to demand accountability.

How long have experts known?  In 1904, a paper called A Radioactive Gas from Crude Petroleum was published by EF Burton at the University of Toronto. Even before radon had been given a name by scientists, Burton concluded through his experiments that, “Fresh crude petroleum has been found to contain a strongly radioactive gas . . .

Then in 1960, the United States Geological Survey published a report called Oil Yield and Uranium Content of Black Shales which linked black shales (like the Marcellus Shale) to high amounts of uranium and therefore to radioactivity.

In 1982 a report from the American Petroleum Institute (API)  obtained by investigative journalist Justin Nobel called An Analysis of the Impact of the Regulation of ‘Radionuclides’ as a Hazardous Air Pollutant on the Petroleum Industry says: “Almost all materials of interest and use to the petroleum industry contain measurable quantities of radionuclides . . . API should be more concerned.” It goes on to say “It is concluded that the regulation of radionuclides could impose a severe burden on API member companies, and it would be prudent to monitor closely both regulatory actions.”

In 1990, the Oil and Gas Journal  said: “In varying degrees of severity, NORM [naturally occurring radioactive material] contamination may exist at every oil and gas production site and related facilities . . . a potential health hazard to personnel . . .   a possible public relations problem for the industry.” 

So – the risk of radioactivity in petroleum has been known for 116 years. And yet, companies continue to drill it, while simultaneously burying and publicly denying the existence of relevant information that speaks to the potential detrimental health hazards of doing so. The companies continue to expose workers to this hazard without adequate protection. They have obtained exponential wealth and invested in political power at every level, which has led to government and regulator complacency and partnership with industry. For the sake of fossil fuel extractive industry growth and money, they have sacrificed our communities like has been done in the past by numerous other industries. It is laid out plainly by government and industry that if the radioactive waste from oil and gas production had to be properly handled, the industry would not be economically viable.

This is not just a “fracking” problem and not just a Pennsylvania problem – North Sea oil rig workers, pipe cleaners in Louisiana, and people living next to coal ash dumps have all faced documented negative health impacted from exposure to radiation from the fossil fuel industry. It shows that the most powerful and wealthy industry in the world cares little for people’s lives.

To mitigate this “public relations problem,” the industry used a variety of tactics:

First, they brushed it under the rug. They repeatedly stated that it’s safe, expecting us to trust them.

Second, they  utilized government connections in order to build entire local economies around singular extractive industries, particularly in communities that had already experienced the economic plight of boom and bust economies and dwindling factory work . This cornered opportunity, and options, and livelihood, and gained the trust and approval of local residents. They further normalized building industrial sites in the heart of residential communities.

Third, they sanctioned their own scientific research that used methods and interpretations to support their narrative that everything is safe. After all, it would be silly to poison their own profit margins, right?

Fourth, they banked on lacking causal factors to definitively blame radiation for any issues it causes, as radiation isn’t something you can see or smell, and proving that long term exposure to radiation can give a person cancer thirty years down the line isn’t easy.

Lastly, they are hoping the average person won’t understand nuclear chemistry, but guess what? You can understand this and with knowledge comes power.

CCJ has answered various questions on our resource page including:

  • What is radiation?

  • What are different types of radiation?

  • How radiation is measured and regulated?

  • How radiation affects human health?

  • Why the Marcellus Shale is especially radioactive?

  • Why the waste streams from fracking are especially hazardous?

  • Why this waste isn’t regulated?

  • How workers are (or aren’t protected)?

  • Where the waste is going?

  • What can you do and how can you protect yourself?

    Actions you can take:

    • Vote, vote, vote

      • Research who has financial ties and has taken campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry (I’ll have information on that coming in another blog post!)

      • Ask candidates about their positions on these topics

    • Hold your elected officials accountable

      • Find out who your PA state representatives are here and ask them about TENORM waste regulation related to the oil and gas industry (remember – knowledge is your weapon)

      • Call, write letters, visit town hall meetings, and if you are able, try to schedule a time to meet with your representative

      • 21st District PA State Representative Sara Innamorato is currently drafting a bill to prevent TENORM waste from entering waterways in Pennsylvania – tell your representatives to support the bill!

    • Pressure the DEP and EPA to work for citizens and not the industry

      • If you see something wrong related to oil and gas activity – speak out

      • Attend meetings where regulators are attending and challenge their narrative

    • If you are worried about the safety of your water, CCJ can connect you to resources to get proper testing

    • Know that the rivers highlighted in this map could be a source of radiation and treat them accordingly

      • There is not yet conclusive research on how far the radionuclides are traveling and to what extent they are affecting recreation, agriculture and drinking water

    • Consider donating to CCJ and investigative news sources such as Public Herald to support continued organizing and investigation into this issue affecting our community

    • Get involved in organizing with CCJ or other grassroots groups, our biggest power is our time, knowledge, and effort and organizing together to tackle such a huge issue is more valuable than money

    • If you have questions or need support, feel free to reach out to any of us at CCJ

    Note: Through the hard work of many journalists, organizations (CCJ!), activists, and residents (Justin Nobel’s piece in Rolling Stone and Public Herald’s work are great places to start) – much of this information has just recently come into the public’s reach. Various sources are listed in our resources page for further reading. We have simply compiled the information they have gathered in an easy to understand way.

    Link to the FULL CCJ Radiation Resource


  • Kristen Locy

    In 2018, Kristen graduated from Allegheny College with a degree in Environmental Studies and a passion to go back to the community where she grew up to make a positive impact. She joined the team in the summer of 2019 as an intern and was promoted to Outreach Coordinator in the summer of 2020. Kristen's family has lived in Washington and Greene Counties for generations. Her great-grandparents were coal miners and steel workers in Washington County. She has a passion for writing, storytelling, and helping to build community in the region she calls home. In her free time, you'll find Kristen canoeing local rivers, gardening, and spending time with her miniature schnauzer puppy named Karl.

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