Don’t Look Down: Frack Waste in Martins Ferry

by Randi Pokladnik, PhD

Recently, I took a drive around the streets surrounding the 4K Industrial Park in Martins Ferry, Ohio. Part of the industrial park includes buildings that were once part of old Wheeling-Pittsburg Steel. The area sits in a flood plain along the Ohio River. About 2500 feet from the site is the high school football field and the local hospital. The well-head for the drinking water supply of the city is about 1000 feet away from the Austin Masters, LLC building. 

Wheeling-Pitt went bankrupt in 2012 and as a result, sold the plant. The new owner as of 2012 is 4K, LLC. The area is now home to fracking wastes processing operations. The proximity of these operations to the drinking water wells of the city is concerning. Also concerning is the fact that before fracking wastes were ever brought on-site, the area was contaminated by legacy wastes deposited by the former owners.

An inspection in 2008 by the Ohio EPA found high levels of hexavalent chrome, the same heavy metal that was the inspiration for the movie Erin Brockovich. Chromium-6, as it is known, is highly toxic and causes gastrointestinal cancer. The California EPA has set a drinking water standard of 0.02 ppb (parts per billion). 

Although the US EPA classifies the metal as a “likely carcinogen” it does not require that water utilities test for it and has not established safe legal limits for the metal. The only testing performed is for total chromium, which includes a much less dangerous oxidation state of the metal (trivalent chromium).   Chromium-3 can be found in vegetables, grains and meats. The US EPA’s safe drinking water standard for total chromium is 100ppb, but without specific testing for Chromium-6, no one can say for sure how much of this more dangerous chromium might be present in drinking water.

In 2008, Wheeling-Pitt submitted “closure plans” for the plant. Then in 2012, WP was notified that the plans needed revisions. By then, Wheeling-Pitt had filed for bankruptcy and the plant was sold. Even though records from the Ohio EPA show letters were sent to the new owners in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2018, the new owners have not satisfied the requirement of a “proper closure plan.” Currently, the US EPA is drafting actions for the site. Meanwhile, the local residents are left in the dark about the possible threats to their drinking water from toxic hexavalent chromium.

In 2015, the Austin Masters, LLC facility began processing oil and gas wastes.  They handle “filter socks” which contain sludge and drilling mud from fracking. These materials, like most of the oil and gas industry activities, are exempt from regulations. Since the late 1980s, “drilling muds, production brines, drilling fluids, produced water, and other wastes associated with the exploration, development, or production of crude oil or natural gas” are exempted from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act rules for hazardous materials. 

The exemption “does not mean these wastes could not present a hazard to human health and the environment if improperly managed” according to the US EPA. Dr. Julie Weatherington-Rice, an environmental scientist who has tracked oil and gas wastes for over 40 years, said “some of these materials examined by the USGS were found to be highly radioactive.” A 2021 report by the National Resource Defense Council, said “the country continues to lack any federal regulations governing the handling and disposal of radioactive waste and materials generated from these activities, leaving Americans reliant on spotty and loophole-ridden state oversight.”

TENORM or technically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials are extracted during the process of drilling. Both Radium-226 and Radium-228 can be found in drilling muds and produced water. Produced water is a combination of natural brines and man-made chemicals brought to the surface for disposal. “Essentially what you are doing is taking an underground radioactive reservoir and bringing it to the surface where it can interact with people and the environment,” says Marco Kaltofen, a nuclear-forensics scientist at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.” 

Because Radium is in the same elemental family as calcium, the body cannot easily discern it from calcium. When the radioactive materials are absorbed into the bones the result is cancer of the bone and bone marrow. Documents from the oil and gas industry show they knew about the connection between exposures to radioactive substances and bone cancers as early as 1950. 

Every surface that touches fracking brine can be contaminated by the radioactivity. This includes: tanks, filters, pumps, pipes, hoses, and trucks. Workers at these facilities are at a high risk of exposure. 

According to a 2020 report, America’s Radioactive Secret, published in the Rolling Stone, “The Marcellus shale, underlying Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York, has some of the highest amounts of radiation in gas deposits.  Radium in the brine averages around 9,300 picocuries per liter, but has been recorded as high as 28,500.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has established a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for radium in public water supplies of 5 picocuries per liter (pCi/L).

Radium-226 has a half-life of 1600 years and when it decays it emits an alpha particle. This means that if you had a pound of Ra-226, in 1600 years you would be left with a half-pound. An alpha particle can be stopped by a piece of paper but when inhaled or ingested into the body they emit ionizing radiation that can damage living cells.  Radium-228 has a half-life of 5.75 years and emits a beta particle. Beta particles can penetrate the skin and like alpha particles, beta particles are dangerous when inhaled or ingested. 

The updated 2021 Drinking Water Source Assessment for Martins Ferry’s Water stated “the drinking water aquifer was highly susceptible to contamination.” This is due to the relatively thin layer of clay that protects the aquifer as well as the fact that the shallow aquifer is only 30 feet below the surface. Imagine the drinking water source of residents lying only 30 feet below dangerous carcinogenic materials such as hexavalent chromium and Radium-226.

If that isn’t enough to cause alarm, drive to the industrial park. You will be surprised at the dilapidated buildings with open doors allowing particles from wastes to escape. The areas around the buildings are saturated with ponding water and some exterior walls are missing bricks.  Outdoor pipes are repaired with duct tape and metal structures are rusting. Are these the types of facilities that should be located near a football field or a hospital, let alone in close proximity to a drinking water source?

It is time the US EPA, Ohio EPA, 4K owners, and local and state officials investigate, remediate and regulate this hazard, and stop treating the citizens and workers like an expendable commodity.