Lancaster, PA Water District Wants Testing for Radioactivity in Susquehanna River

The city of Lancaster, PA supplies drinking water for 110,000 people in the city and surrounding suburbs. The drinking water comes from both the Conestoga  and Susquehanna Rivers, with more of it coming from the Conestoga. But the city is planning to change the mix and start drawing a majority of its water from the Susquehanna River—and that has them concerned about potential radioactivity from Marcellus Shale drilling.

Lancaster city officials are scrambling to begin additional testing of drinking water drawn from the Susquehanna River to make sure it doesn’t have radioactivity or salty bromides from Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling.

"It’s a huge concern for us. It’s such a new animal for everyone in the state," said Charlotte Katzenmoyer, the city’s public works director.

Her worries follow recent disclosures that wastewater used in underground fracturing in the Marcellus Shale formation can pick up naturally occurring radioactivity.

Much of that wastewater is recycled and used again. But some is taken to municipal wastewater treatment plants, processed and released, where it makes its way to rivers.

"We’re trying to figure out; is there more specific constituents like bromides that we should be testing for?" Katzenmoyer said.*

When drilling wastewater returns to the surface it contains high levels of bromides, making the wastewater “salty.” According to the article, when bromides undergo the process required to treat drinking water, the bromides “can” (but don’t always) create cancer-causing compounds.

Many people became alarmed after a series of articles were published in The New York Times claiming that Pennsylvania has been lax in allowing Marcellus drilling wastewater to be treated at municipal sewage plants and then discharged into the state’s waterways, including the Susquehanna River. The concern is that naturally occurring radioactive material gets flushed from the ground during the drilling process, when the wastewater is recovered. And that the radioactive material is not properly treated before being discharged into waterways.

However, not long after the NYT article was published, the PA Department of Environmental Protection released a study it had conducted, testing Pennsylvania rivers for radiation and chemicals, and found that radiation levels were well below unsafe levels. Still, vigilance is important so that the public is assured the practice of hydraulic fracturing and the resulting wastewater is safe.

*Lancaster Intelligencer Journal (Mar 28, 2011) – Lancaster City to test Susquehanna water for radioactivity