DEP’s testing methods for radiation in a PA creek questioned

drainage from the Clyde Mine

State officials tested for radioactivity in a major tributary to the Monongahela River, as well as discharge water from an abandoned mine that flows into it, after significant rainfall in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

That led environmental groups who repeatedly asked the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for the investigation to question whether the agency purposefully tested Ten Mile Creek after June’s heavy rains, which could have diluted the pollution.

“DEP’s recent sampling of Ten Mile Creek flies in the face of common sense and reveals a disturbing lack of seriousness that is dismissive of the community in Greene County and the significance of this situation,” Patrick Grenter, executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice in nearby Washington County, wrote in an email.

On June 22 and 23, department officials tested the creek — which feeds into a major source of drinking water for the Mon Valley — the inactive Clyde Mine discharge near Clarksville, and the Tri County Municipal Water Authority downstream from the discharge.

The creek water was flowing about 10 and six times more than the normal rate for those days, respectively, according to historical U.S. Geological Survey water data.

The DEP declined to answer questions about why officials tested on those days in late June.

High water levels

The United States Geological Survey [USGS] data for Ten Mile Creek show that the water’s median flow rate on the days the Department of Environmental Protection tested — June 22 and 23 — was 333.5 cubic feet per second and 149 cubic feet per second, respectively.

The USGS data show the median flow rates in the creek for the past 68 years is 32 cubic feet per second for June 22 and 25 cubic feet per second for June 23.

The flow, or discharge, rate is the volume of water that passes a given location within a given period of time.

“We are not responding to questions regarding the [Ten] Mile Creek sampling until we see the lab results and [have] had an opportunity to analyze them,” said John Poister, a DEP spokesman. “We do not want to speculate on any aspect of the project at this time. Nothing is set in stone regarding this project—and if the results indicate we need to take further steps, we will.”

The department expects results from these samples at the end of August, Poister said.

Ken Dufalla, local chapter president of the Izaak Walton League conservation group in Greene County, called the testing a joke. “We are not going to accept these results.”

Initial DEP water sampling from the creek and mine discharge from April 2014 showed high levels of radioactive materials and other chemicals typically related to Marcellus Shale drilling operations.

More than a year later, in early June, the DEP said it would more thoroughly test the water, sediment and fish to evaluate the scope of the problem and whether it could be a public health concern. It said it would also try to determine whether the pollution could be coming from shale gas drilling.

Test results released last week from West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute show radiation levels in the creek and mine discharge were below federal limits for safe drinking water, according to director Paul Ziemkiewicz. Those samples were taken on June 25.  

Experts’ take

Three water quality experts told PublicSource that high water flow in the creek those June days would dilute the water and affect the detection of chemicals, but that rainfall would likely leave the Clyde Mine discharge unaffected.

And it’s the Clyde Mine discharge that could be the source of possible radioactive pollution in the creek, one expert said.

“That should really be the focus,” said Avner Vengosh, a geochemist at Duke University.

How can drinking water with radionuclides affect your health?

Radionuclides, including radium, uranium, and gross alpha, are radioactive elements that can occur naturally in the environment.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, people who drink water containing those elements over many years may have an increased risk of cancer. Drinking water with uranium over the long term may also result in kidney issues.

The initial sampling the DEP did on the mine discharge and the creek in April 2014 showed high levels of radionuclides, including radium 226 and radium 228, and bromides in the abandoned Clyde Mine discharge water.

These chemicals are not typical of what you’d see in coal mine discharges, but rather are common in fracking wastewater, water quality experts said.

Vengosh’s research group also tested the Clyde Mine discharge in June for radioactive elements and other chemicals associated with Marcellus Shale, but decided not to test the creek because of the rain.

Vengosh said he has doubts about the other test results and he expects his group’s results to bring a clearer picture of how much radioactive material is present, where it’s coming from and how it could be affecting the creek.

Poister, the DEP spokesman, said the department used an inexpensive testing method called gamma spectroscopy for its 2014 sampling, but will use more precise methods following EPA standards for analyzing its June samples.

The results released by the West Virginia researchers have been interpreted in different ways by media and the gas industry, depending on which radiation readings they focused on. The WVU results show most radionuclides were detected at levels well below federal safe drinking water limits, but shows one, gross alpha, close or at the limit, which could indicate there is a larger contamination problem.

Energy in Depth, a gas industry public relations website, and other local media focused on the low levels of radionuclides detected, while the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the WVU data indicates there is evidence of radiation in Clyde Mine likely linked to past dumping of shale gas wastewater.

The WVU researchers sent its samples to a certified lab in Greensburg, Pa., that used EPA-approved methods for the analysis, Ziemkiewicz said.

He said the tests did show higher-than-normal levels of bromides, a salt associated with the Marcellus Shale, coming from the Clyde Mine. This could still be an indicator that shale water is present, Ziemkiewicz said.

When mixed with chlorine at a drinking water treatment facility, bromides can create carcinogenic chemicals called trihalomethanes. The Tri County Municipal Water Authority, one of the DEP’s June sampling sites, has exceeded safe drinking water limits of these chemicals numerous times in recent years.

If the new testing and research points to a problem with radiation or bromides in the creek, and they can prove it’s coming from the Marcellus Shale, then the big question becomes, ‘How is it getting there?’

That’s one of the most intriguing questions, Vengosh said.

Dufalla, of the Izaak Walton League, has speculated for years that it’s coming from someone illegally dumping fracking wastewater into abandoned coal mines in the area.

Regardless of what’s causing it, Vengosh said the main focus for regulators and scientists should be figuring out how the water discharging into the stream is affecting the environment and health of area residents.

Local school to test water

After PublicSource published a story on June 5 about possible radiation in Ten Mile Creek, a superintendent of a small rural school district in Washington County decided to have the water tested inside the schools.

Linda Marcolini, superintendent of the Bethlehem Center School District in Fredericktown, Pa., said tests for radiation and other chemicals will be done on the water inside the three buildings on the school district's campus.

"I'm trying to err on the side of caution," she said. "It may be nothing, but it may be something."

If the tests do show the presence of radiation or some chemicals, she said, “This might be a big thing down here.”

The water will be tested as a safety precaution, she said, for the 1,300 K-12 students who come from the boroughs of Beallsville, Centerville, Deemston, Marianna and East Bethlehem.

Marcolini said she has not received any calls from parents, but decided to set up the tests after learning about possible pollution in the creek.

The school gets its water from the Southwestern Pennsylvania Water Authority, located in Jefferson, Pa.

To reassure customers that the water is safe from radiation, plant manager Tom Goughenour said they are also testing the water at the authority for radionuclides.

Reach Natasha Khan at 412-315-0261 or nkhan@publicsource.org. Follow her on Twitter @khantasha.