Lax regulations and radioactive water

The New York Times has just released an incredible story on problems with frack water. For quite a while, we've known that frack water contains all kinds of awful materials including benzene, a known carcinogen. And when it comes back up, many people have suspected that the Earth's pressure combined with the injection pressure combined with the minerals beneath the Earth's surface combined with the original mixture would create new levels of toxicity. How much?
[D]ocuments reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.

Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.

The Times also found never-reported studies by the E.P.A. and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.

Guess what? The E.P.A. has not intervened. Other environmental agencies have not intervened either. In fact, in our own state of Pennsylvania, the newly-elected governor has made it more difficult for anyone to intervene. Public health and environmental integrity might be on the chopping block more than we suspected.
The risks are particularly severe in Pennsylvania, which has seen a sharp increase in drilling, with roughly 71,000 active gas wells, up from about 36,000 in 2000. The level of radioactivity in the wastewater has sometimes been hundreds or even thousands of times the maximum allowed by the federal standard for drinking water. While people clearly do not drink drilling wastewater, the reason to use the drinking-water standard for comparison is that there is no comprehensive federal standard for what constitutes safe levels of radioactivity in drilling wastewater.
The story explains numerous other problems with frack water in Pennsylvania including an interactive map that you can peruse to see levels of radium, uranium, benzene, and gross alpha found in Pennsylvania water.

Of particular alarm is the following:

¶More than 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater was produced by Pennsylvania wells over the past three years, far more than has been previously disclosed. Most of this water — enough to cover Manhattan in three inches — was sent to treatment plants not equipped to remove many of the toxic materials in drilling waste.

¶At least 12 sewage treatment plants in three states accepted gas industry wastewater and discharged waste that was only partly treated into rivers, lakes and streams.

¶Of more than 179 wells producing wastewater with high levels of radiation, at least 116 reported levels of radium or other radioactive materials 100 times as high as the levels set by federal drinking-water standards. At least 15 wells produced wastewater carrying more than 1,000 times the amount of radioactive elements considered acceptable.

Though people might not be contaminated by showering, they may be exposed repeatedly through ingestion or through bioconcentration in the food chain. Fish, deer, and other managed and hunted species may accumulate radioactive material in their tissues and humans might then eat them. The gas industry calls this a perception problem. Is it? The gas industry reported in a 1990 study that "'using conservative assumptions,' radium in drilling wastewater dumped off the Louisiana coast posed 'potentially significant risks' of cancer for people who eat fish from those waters regularly."

Read on here.

Governor Tom Corbett is quoted at the piece's end. He is quoted as saying, “I will direct the Department of Environmental Protection to serve as a partner with Pennsylvania businesses, communities and local governments. It should return to its core mission protecting the environment based on sound science.”

What do you think should be done? How should government respond to public concerns and sound science?

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