Potentially hazardous uranium and radium are some of the radioactive materials being pumped into Ohio's injection wells, such as the 13,727-foot deep one atop Kirkwood Heights.
However, officials with the Ohio Department of Health believe pumping these elements into reinforced Class II disposal wells is the best way for the Buckeye State to keep those materials out of drinking water supplies.
Although some recent environmental concerns regarding Marcellus and Utica shale drilling have focused on air emissions caused by flaring or gas compression, another possible problem results from the millions of gallons of briny wastewater left over after fracking jobs are finished.
After gas drillers pump millions of gallons of fracking fluid - consisting mostly of water and sand, but also including different chemical combinations that vary per the choice of the driller - into a production well, much of this substance flushes back up through the shaft. The fracking fluid combines with minerals and mud from the earth to create the briny wastewater.
While some drillers are able to recycle or reuse some of the briny water, the remainder of the substance must be discarded. Because governments have cracked down on allowing the water to be pumped into public water treatment systems, underground injection wells are the preferred disposal method for many drillers. The Kirkwood Heights well has been accepting brine since fall 2011.
Pennsylvania and West Virginia drillers have been shipping wastewater to the Buckeye State for disposal for several years now. This is because the geology in Pennsylvania makes such injection wells there impractical. West Virginia environmental regulators do not allow natural gas companies to dump radioactive frack water from drilling sites into streams or rivers, while Pennsylvania allows it on only a strictly regulated basis.
A 2011 study by the U.S. Geological Survey examined 52 samples of Marcellus Shale wastewater collected from wells in New York and Pennsylvania. Some of the samples showed readings for radium at least 242 times higher than the amount allowed for drinking water - and at least 20 times higher than the industrial standard.
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, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Exposure to uranium can result in kidney damage and increase one's risk of developing cancer.
However, Robert Jennings, chief of the Office of Public Affairs at the Ohio Department of Health, said the injection wells - cased in both steel and cement - should prevent the radioactive elements from seeping into any water supplies. He said the public should not be concerned about these relatively small amounts of exposure. The radioactive elements, he emphasized, are "naturally occurring," as they are released from the earth during the drilling and fracking process.
"When properly managed, the risks to the public and workers are extremely low. An individual could stand next to a truck that hauls the liquid waste for multiple days and not receive the radiation exposure delivered by a dental X-ray," Jennings said.