What the Frack Is in Pennsylvania’s Water? Uh, Radioactive Gas

Sep 03, 2014 at 2:00 PM ET

In hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” miners pump pressurized liquid composed of sand and chemicals into the earth to free up gas and oil. It’s a real moneymaker. Environmentalists claim that such practices contaminate groundwater with salts and radioactive chemicals, turning what comes out of faucets into toxic waste. In some places in the U.S., you can even light tap water on fire.

As part of our collaboration with MSNBC, Vocativ went to central Pennsylvania, which is adding fracking wells to its landscape at a rate three times faster than the national average. There we found executives and politicians campaigning on behalf of hydraulic fracturing by drinking fracking fluid—the liquid that miners pump into the ground—in front of large crowds to prove its safety.

At a recent fracking convention, energy industry consultant Phil Grossweiler insisted that these attempts to sway public perception are nothing but publicity stunts. “The point of seeing executives and politicians drink fracking fluid was deception,” he tells us. “It was an attempt to convince the public that there is no harm from fracturing a shale oil well. It was deceptive in the sense that it’s the least of the problems. What goes down the well is not nearly as important as what comes up.”

Most relevant to Grossweiler and other critics are the ingredients of the fracking fluid that returns to the surface—referred to as “flowback water”—as radon-laced toxic waste. Radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer in America. Yet there are no federal regulations limiting radon in flowback water.

To measure the amount of radon gas actually present in water found in the proximity of fracking sites, Vocativ tested flowback from a stream near Trout Run, Pennsylvania, an area lined with upwards of 15 wellheads. “We are now 15 minutes into this test for radon,” Andrew Nelson, a scientist at the University Iowa, explains as he tested our flowback sample. “We can say that the amount of radon in this vial is thousands of times higher than the allowable standards for drinking water based on the EPA limits.”

Still, locals in the nation’s fracking capital are enjoying the economic spoils. Hydraulic fracturing is expected to add $30 billion to Pennsylvania’s economy over the next two decades. “Right over the hill is a nice guy who taught his whole life—hardworking guy,” Ronnie Rodarmel Jr., a landowner in Trout Run, tells us. “He has 200 acres. His kids are probably not going to have to worry about money.”

Cassidy, a waitress at Fry Bros. Turkey Ranch in Trout Run, is also experiencing the financial benefits that the fracking industry tows behind it as it rolls into town. “Sometimes we get gas workers in here and they get very large to-go orders,“ she says. “They leave us really big tips.” Here’s another tip: Don’t drink the water.

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