New Radioactive Isotopes Found in Fracking Waste Being Buried In Landfills

Landfill waste from Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania contains previously unreported radioactive isotopes

Solid waste from horizontal gas wells contains radioactive material that ends up in landfills. (American Chemical Society)

A new American Chemical Society study finds fracking waste being buried in landfills contains radioactive materials that had not been previously reported.

US oil and natural gas production, has been boosted in recent years by a drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking.”

But this practice has also been criticized for its possible impact on the environment because of the wastewater this method generates.

A new study published in the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science and Technology, which examined solid well waste from Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania, finds that the waste contains naturally occurring radioactive material that had not been previously reported.

In addition to the early reports of uranium 238 and radium 226, the study indicates that collected waste samples also contain elevated levels of the radioactive isotopes uranium-234, thorium-230, lead-210 and polonium-210.

Uranium-238 and radium-226 have been reported in previous such samples.

Radioactive Isotopes Found in Fracking Waste

Disequilibrium of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) in Drill Cuttings from a Horizontal Drilling Operation

Eric S. Eitrheim, Dustin May§, Tori Z. Forbes, and Andrew W. Nelson*

Department of Chemistry, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 52242, United States

University of Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory, Research Park, Coralville, Iowa 52242, United States

§ Interdisciplinary Human Toxicology Program, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 52242, United States
Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett., 2016, 3 (12), pp 425–429

DOI: 10.1021/acs.estlett.6b00439

Publication Date (Web): November 23, 2016
Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

*E-mail: andrew-w-nelson@uiowa.edu. Phone: 319-335-1350.

Naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) in solid waste or “drill cuttings” produced from unconventional drilling for natural gas extraction wells potentially pose environmental contamination risks; however, the composition and mobility of NORM in these solid wastes are poorly understood. In this study, the composition of NORM, including uranium, thorium, radium, lead, and polonium isotopes, was evaluated in three samples of drill cuttings extracted from a well drilled into the Marcellus Shale formation. Leachability of NORM in drill cuttings was characterized by leaching the solid waste with dilute acetic acid at four different pH values. The uranium-series radionuclides in cuttings and leachate samples displayed isotopic disequilibrium, suggesting some environmental mobility of radionuclides in these shale formations. Our results indicate that isotopic analysis of uranium-series radionuclides is needed for a more complete understanding of the potential environmental contamination risks associated with these solid wastes.

Introduction

Although there are numerous socioeconomic benefits related to increased domestic energy production, unconventional drilling produces large volumes of waste that may result in long-term undesirable environmental impacts.(1-3) While a range of chemical contaminants have been documented in both solid and liquid wastes, naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) from the uranium 238 (238U) and thorium 232 (232Th) series may also be cause for concern.(4, 5) Liquid waste (produced fluids and flowback waters) from unconventional wells has received considerable attention from numerous stakeholders because of the large volumes of radium (Ra)-enriched fluids that are produced and the risks these fluids pose to riparian environments.(6-16) Less attention has been paid to the levels of NORM in solid wastes (termed drilling cuttings). Despite the 2.37 million tons of drill cutting extracted in Pennsylvania (PA) in 2011 alone, very little information about the radiochemical profile of these materials is available.(17)

Accurate analysis of NORM in drill cuttings and leachates from drill cuttings requires a multitude of radiochemical techniques that are tailored to the physicochemical and/or radiochemical nature of any given isotope. In 2015, PA and WV (West Virginia) released studies on the NORM content of Marcellus Shale cuttings, indicating that radioactivity levels in cuttings from horizontal portions of an unconventional well were higher than those from vertical portions.(18, 19) The studies also concluded that drill cuttings pose minimal risk to the general public. Although this conclusion may be the case, these reports focused on only several long-lived radionuclides from the 238U series, specifically, 238U and 226Ra. Other key 238U-series radionuclides, such as pure α-emitting radionuclides, 234U, thorium 230 (230Th), and polonium 210 (210Po) and the low-energy β-emitter, lead 210 (210Pb), were not explicitly reported. The PA and WV reports also indicated that leachates from landfills accepting drill cuttings contained NORM, and in some cases, the 226Ra concentrations in these samples were above action levels.(18, 19) WV and PA did not report levels of 238U in leachates; however, results from sequential leach studies suggest that 238U in Marcellus Shale cuttings is relatively mobile and may contribute to elevated levels of 238U in landfill leachates.(20) While new information about 238U and 226Ra in Marcellus Shale cuttings and leachates is emerging, relative concentrations and mobility of other environmentally persistent radionuclides in the 238U series, including 234U, 230Th, 210Pb, and 210Po, remain unexplored. These radionuclides may provide important information for environmental contamination risk and source apportionment.<

Here, we characterized NORM in cuttings associated with horizontal drilling activities in the Marcellus Shale formation. First, using new and modified radiochemical methods, we quantitated and assessed the equilibrium status of environmentally persistent 238U-series radionuclides (238U, 234U, 226Ra, 210Pb, and 210Po) in three solid samples from a horizontal well within the Marcellus Shale formation (Figure 1). Second, the potential for NORM to leach from cuttings extracted from the horizontal portion of the well was assessed using a modified U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP).(21) We hypothesized that 238U-series radionuclides in Marcellus Shale drill cuttings would be in secular equilibrium (steady state) and that 238U-series radionuclides would partition into TCLP leachates with decreasing pH.

Figure 1. Levels of 238U-series radionuclides in three drill cutting samples from an unconventional drilling operation targeting the Marcellus Shale: (A) sample from a vertical portion of the well at 1380 m, (B) sample from a horizontal drilled portion of the well at 2060 m, and (C) sample from from a horizontal drilled portion of the well at 3430 m.

Radionuclide concentrations by drilling depth - C

Radionuclide concentrations by drilling depth – C

Radionuclide concentrations by drilling depth - B

Radionuclide concentrations by drilling depth – B

Radionuclide concentrations by drilling depth - A

Radionuclide concentrations by drilling depth – A

Materials and Methods

General

All chemicals were ACS reagent grade or higher. The University of Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory (SHL) analyzed the solid samples for the content of relevant metals, inorganics, and organics (Table S1 and Figure 2). High-purity germanium (HPGe) γ spectrometry of drill cuttings was performed at the SHL using 500 cm3 Marinelli beakers on an ORTEC system calibrated to a mixed γ source [Standard Reference Source 101582, Eckert and Ziegler (E&Z), Atlanta, GA] using a previously described methodology.(10, 11) Separation and gas flow proportional counting (GFPC) of 210Pb in drill cuttings were performed by PACE Analytical (Greensburg, PA). α spectrometry was performed at the University of Iowa. Radionuclide tracers included 232U standard 92403 (E&Z), 229Th standard 4328C [National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Gaithersburg, MD], 209Po standard 92565 (E&Z), and the cyclotron-produced 203Pb (Lantheus Medical Imaging, Billerica, MA). Emission energies and half-lives were taken from the NUDAT database from the U.S. National Nuclear Data Center (NNDC, Brookhaven National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Upton, NY).(22) The only exception is for 209Po, for which a half-life of 128.3 years was used, as evidence suggests that its half-life is longer than previously established.(23) All samples were decay corrected to the time of extraction using standard decay correction equations.(24)

Percentage of (A) radionuclides (Figure 1) and (B) metals leached by acetate buffer at pH 1.8, 2.8, 3.8, and 4.8 from 2060 m drill cuttings

Figure 2. Percentage of (A) radionuclides (Figure 1) and (B) metals leached by acetate buffer at pH 1.8, 2.8, 3.8, and 4.8 from 2060 m drill cuttings (normalized to dry weight).

Drill Cutting Samples

Three solid samples were obtained from a single well in northern PA. The first sample was taken from the vertical, air-drilled section (1380 m) extracted in mid-November 2015, and the two other samples were extracted from the horizontal section (2060 and 3430 m) in mid-December 2015. Samples were received January 8, 2016, and homogenized. Subsamples for U, Th, Ra, and Pb isotopic analysis were dried at 110 °C until a stable weight was achieved. Because of the volatility of 210Po, analysis was performed on the “wet” sample.

Methods of Analysis

Uranium and Thorium

238U, 234U, and 230Th were prepared by a slightly modified rapid method developed for the analysis of actinides in asphalt.(25) First, 50 mBq each of 232U and 229Th tracer were added to the samples (1.0 g), and the dried drill cuttings were ashed in a muffle furnace (600 °C, 1 h) in a platinum crucible. The samples were then rapidly fused in NaOH (10 g, 600 °C, 15 min), before removal from the salt matrix using H2O. Initially, the samples were precipitated with calcium phosphate [Ca3(PO4)2], followed by a second precipitation with cerium fluoride (CeF3). CeF3 solids were then dissolved [10 mL, 3 M HNO3/0.175% boric acid; 10 mL, 3 M HNO3/1 M Al(NO3)3] and separated by Eichrom method ACW01.(26) Elemental fractions were prepared for α spectrometry by CeF3 microprecipitation as previously described.(27)

Radium

Samples (1000 cm3) for 226Ra analysis were dried, sealed (>21 days, for 222Rn ingrowth), and quantitated by HPGe γ spectrometry (SHL) as previously described.(10, 11)

Lead

210Pb was separated and quantitated by PACE Analytical according to Eichrom method PBS01.(28)

Polonium

209Po tracer (∼50 mBq) was added to 0.5 g subsamples and then digested with 11 mL of aqua regia overnight on hot plate. Samples were then precipitated [few drops of H2O2, Fe(OH)3, manganese dioxide (MnO2), and NH4OH], centrifuged, and washed (H2O) as described for the methodology developed for Marcellus Shale-produced fluids.(11) Pellets were dissolved [20 mL of 0.1 M HCl and 2 mL of 25% (w/v) hydroxylamine (NH2OH·Cl)], autodeposited onto nickel (Ni) disks, and counted by high-resolution α spectrometry.(11)

Leaching Studies

Leaching was performed using a modified EPA TCLP.(21) Centrifugation was used instead of filtration to allow for inclusion of colloid-bound radionuclides. For Pb, Po, U, and Th leaches, 100 mL of acetate buffer adjusted to pH 1.8, 2.8, 3.8, and 4.8 (n = 4) was added to 10.0 g of sample. Because of the higher detection limits for 226Ra, samples were increased to 20.0 g of drill cuttings and 200 mL of acetate buffer. All samples were then mixed for 24 h and centrifuged, and the leachates were placed into glass beakers prior to separation and quantitation.

Uranium and Thorium

232U and 229Th tracers were added, and the sample was subjected to a Fe(OH)3 and Ca3(PO4)2 coprecipitation. The resulting solid pellets were dissolved [10 mL, 3 M HNO3/1 M Al(NO3)3], separated, and prepared for α spectrometry as described above.

Radium

Leachates were prepared by the EPA 903.0 method by SHL.(29) The only modification to this procedure was that yields were determined by barium 133 (133Ba) using HPGe γ spectrometry en lieu of gravimetric determinations. 226Ra was quantitated by GFPC.

Lead

203Pb tracer was added, and then the leachates were then subjected to a Fe(OH)3 precipitation. The resultant pellet that was dissolved in 10 mL of 1 M HCl and separated on Pb resin according to Eichrom method PBW01.(30) Yields of 203Pb were determined by sodium iodide (NaI) γ spectrometry.(9) Activities of 210Pb were determined by ingrowth of 210Po via liquid scintillation on an α/β discriminating liquid scintillation counter at SHL.<

Polonium

209Po was added as a tracer, and the leachate was acidified to pH 1–2 using HCl. NH2OH·Cl was added [5 mL, 25% (w/v)], and Po was then autodeposited at 90 °C on a Ni planchet and quantitated by α spectrometry.(11)

Metals

Using the modified EPA TCLP,(21) each acetate buffer (10 mL, pH 1.8, 2.8, 3.8, and 4.8; n = 3 for each pH) was added to the drill cuttings (2060 m sample) and homogenized for 24 h. The samples were then centrifuged, decanted, and acidified (100 μL of 16 M HNO3) prior to analysis by SHL.

Results and Discussion

Chemical Characterization

Cuttings from each location were analyzed for common organic and inorganic constituents that could interfere with radiochemical separations. The shallowest sample (1380 m) was extracted by air drilling from the vertical portion of the well, whereas the two deeper samples from the horizontal section (2060 and 3430 m) were removed by diesel-based drilling techniques. All three samples had high levels of organic fractions, with levels of ethylbenzene (38000–63000 μg/kg), xylenes (270000–450000 μg/kg), diesel fuel (70000–120000 μg/kg), and total extractable hydrocarbons (70000–120000 μg/kg) notably elevated (Table S1). The 1380 m sample is chemically distinct from the deeper Marcellus Shale samples (2060 and 3430 m), which were characteristic of marine black shales as evidenced by enrichment of trace elements cadmium (Cd), copper (Cu), vanadium (V), zinc (Zn), arsenic (As), and selenium (Se).(31)

Characterization of NORM

Environmentally persistent radionuclides from the natural 238U series (238U, 234U, 230Th, 226Ra, 210Pb, and 210Po) were quantified in each drill cutting location (Figure 2A,B and Table S2). On the basis of the chemical analysis and the potential for interference of organic constituents with radiochemical separations, the cutting samples were fired in a muffle furnace. NaOH fusion, based on methods developed for actinide analysis in asphalt, was used to ensure total dissolution of solid material.(25) Drill cuttings are exceptionally challenging samples for radiochemical separations. For example, radiochemical yields for uranium in this study were 40 ± 10%. Previous radiochemical analysis of drill cutting material reported substantially lower radiochemical yields (i.e., ∼2% recovery).(18) These results suggest that new, more robust methods for analysis of drill cutting solid waste are needed. 226Ra analyses are simplified for this complex matrix by elevated abundance and the high-energy γ emissions of 226Ra decay products (214Bi and 214Pb) for HPGe γ spectrometry with little sample preparation (apart from a 30 day hold to allow for decay product ingrowth). The high density of the drill cuttings can interfere with direct measurement of 210Pb (46 keV, 4%) by γ spectrometry;(32, 33) therefore, 210Pb was quantitated by methods developed for 210Pb in soil.(28) 210Po was extracted with aqua regia and H2O2, because 210Po can adhere to organic matter in the soil(34) and volatilize in dry samples through elevated temperatures (>100 °C)(35) or by biological processes under ambient conditions.(36)

The deep drill cuttings (2060 and 3430 m) have levels of 238U-series radionuclides significantly higher than those of the shallower location (1380 m). These results are consistent with the WV and PA studies that indicate horizontal drill cuttings from the Marcellus Shale have elevated levels of 238U and 226Ra relative to those of the vertical portions.(18, 19) The lower level of 226Ra relative to 238U is likely attributable to the partitioning of 226Ra into Marcellus Shale brines that have characteristically elevated levels of 226Ra.(6, 8, 10, 11) As expected, the horizontal portions are also elevated in environmentally persistent radionuclides, 234U, 230Th, 210Pb, and 210Po. Contrary to our hypothesis, the 238U-series radionuclides were not in secular equilibrium. In all samples, 226Ra levels were lower than 238U, 234U, and 230Th levels, which is consistent with other observations.(18, 19) Similarly, levels of 210Pb and 210Po were decreased relative to the 226Ra level. This disequilibrium is likely attributable to partitioning of the noble gas, radon 222 (222Rn), in the subsurface as is expected of gaseous hydrocarbons. The disequilibrium between 226Ra and 210Pb is likely explained by partitioning of 222Rn and could be explored as a tool for determining gas migration in the subsurface.(37) These results suggest that radiochemical equilibrium of 238U-series radionuclides cannot be assumed in Marcellus Shale drill cuttings; accurate assessment of environmental contamination risk by 238U-series radionuclides must include detailed radiochemical analyses.

Leaching

Drill cuttings in the Marcellus Shale region are primarily (98.4%) deposited in landfills;(38) however, the stability of NORM in drill cuttings is uncertain. To assess the potential for 238U-series radionuclides to leach from drill cuttings, we employed a simple, acetate buffer leaching protocol based on the EPA TCLP method,(21) which the EPA believes simulates the leaching that occurs in landfills.(39) We chose to analyze the 2060 m sample as it had the highest levels of all 238U-series radionuclides and would allow for shorter counting times and lower detection limits. In general, we observed negative correlations for the percent radionuclide leached with respect to pH for the 238U-series radionuclides tested (R2 = −0.96 for 238U; R2 = −0.96 for 234U; R2 = −0.95 for 230Th; R2 = −0.62 for 226Ra; R2 = −0.96 for 210Pb; R2 = −0.91 for 210Po) (Figure 2A). Fe and Mn displayed similar trends with greater percentages leaching as pH decreased (R2 = −0.99 for Fe; R2 = −0.95 for Mn) (Figure 2B). The partitioning of 238U-series radionuclides into the acetate solution may in part be explained by the desorption from hydrous Fe and Mn oxide minerals, which are well-known to adsorb heavy metals.(40)

Uranium and Thorium

We observed that 238U and 234U were the most leachable radionuclides (4.2 and 6.1% leached at pH 1.8, respectively), which may be explained by the increased solubility of U when it is complexed with the acetate anion.(41) Interestingly, 234U had a mean radioactivity concentration 1.5 ± 0.1 times higher than that of 238U across all leachate samples. This result was unexpected because 234U and 238U were in secular equilibrium in the drill cuttings. However, the isotopic enrichment of 234U is well-known in natural systems because of α recoil enrichment,(42) which occurs when 238U decays and releases high-energy α particles that break chemical bonds. This allows decay products (i.e., 234U) to be forcefully extruded from the crystal lattice and deposits larger amounts of 234U on the outside of the mineral grain, leading to higher leaching rates. 230Th was not leached as readily as U, as expected because of the relatively low solubility of 230Th in environmental systems. Th is particle reactive in most environmental systems and tends to remain adsorbed onto mineral surfaces at pH >2.(43)

Radium, Lead, and Polonium

Interestingly, only 2.1 ± 1.6% of 226Ra leached at pH 1.8, which is consistent with the analogous Ba data, which indicated that the percent leached was 2.76 ± 0.03% . This is surprising, given that high levels of Ba and Ra isotopes were previously reported in Marcellus Shale-produced fluids.(6, 10) The amount of 210Pb leached was positively correlated with stable Pb extraction (R2 = 0.84), though in much smaller quantities (1.0 ± 0.1%, vs 11.5 ± 0.6% for 210Pb). The difference in extractability between 210Pb and stable Pb may be a reflection of their geochemical microenvironment, which has been observed for other radionuclides.(44) 210Po was the least soluble radionuclide tested in this system, with only 0.28 ± 0.01% leached at pH 1.8. We expected 210Po to partition into the acetate buffers as 210Po is known to be soluble in acetate,(35) yet the low solubility of 210Po can be explained by its strong particle reactivity and tendency to adhere strongly to organics.(34) Interestingly, recent reports have indicated that 210Po in reduced sediments can be volatilized by aerobic marine microorganisms.(36) Drill cuttings from the Marcellus Shale could serve as an interesting medium for future studies of the volatility of Po from ancient marine sediments.

Although previous studies have suggested that NORM in drill cuttings pose a minimal health risk to the general public when deposited in landfills,(18, 19, 45) our results indicate that Marcellus Shale drill cuttings warrant further radiochemical investigation. More studies are needed to develop robust, rapid methods that are suitable for a variety of complex matrices typified by drill cuttings. Additionally, field studies are needed to determine the stability of radionuclides in landfills and the potential for NORM from drill cuttings to migrate into landfill leachates. Studies assessing the risks of exposure to NORM should include analysis of pure α emitters (234U, 230Th, and 210Po) and the low-level β emitter (210Pb). For example, the most leachable isotope in these drill cuttings was 234U, which is typically not detected or reported by standard environmental monitoring methods. Accurate assessment of the human health risks associated with drill cuttings should include isotopic analysis of all environmentally persistent radionuclides.

Supporting Information

The Supporting Information is available free of charge on the ACS Publications website at DOI: 10.1021/acs.estlett.6b00439.

  • Metal, organic, and inorganic composition of drill cuttings (Table S1) and radioactivity concentrations in drill cuttings (Table S2) (PDF)

Disequilibrium of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) in Drill Cuttings from a Horizontal Drilling Operation

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