Radium Found in Mussels Near Former Wastewater Plant

mussels close up

Some freshwater mussels can live for decades, with certain species living over 100 years, making them valuable long-term indicators of water quality and environmental changes. (Photo by Gil Ndjouwou on Unsplash)

by | Jun 7, 2024

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Freshwater mussels, often called nature’s environmental watchdogs, show us just how much the oil and gas industry can affect our water. Researchers from Penn State found that mussels living downstream of an old wastewater treatment plant in Western Pennsylvania have high levels of radium. This plant treated fracking wastewater from the Marcellus Shale for more than 20 years before it shut down in 2019.

The researchers analyzed mussels living about half a kilometer downstream from the old plant and found that their radium levels were almost double those of mussels upstream. Even five kilometers downstream, the mussels still had noticeable amounts of radium. This lingering contamination highlights how the past ways of handling wastewater can leave a lasting mark on the environment.

Impact of Fracking Wastewater on Aquatic Life

Treating oil and gas wastewater often involves removing major contaminants, but trace amounts of radioactive materials, such as radium, remain. These residual contaminants pose significant risks to aquatic ecosystems. The study showed that mussels near the discharge sites had adapted to tolerate the higher salinity and radioactive elements, incorporating these substances into their tissues and shells. This process impacts the mussels and has potential repercussions for the broader food chain, as predators like waterbirds, raccoons, and otters consume these mussels.

The unique chemical signatures of the contaminants, particularly the ratios of radioactive elements, allowed researchers to trace the radium source directly to the treated wastewater from the Marcellus Shale. This finding is crucial for understanding the extent of pollution and its lasting effects on the environment.

Regulatory Implications and Future Research

Penn State’s research has significant implications for environmental regulations and wastewater disposal practices. Although Pennsylvania has recently reduced the acceptance of oil and gas-produced water, the historical discharge has left a legacy of contamination, calling for a reassessment of regulations to prevent similar environmental impacts in the future.

Ongoing monitoring and further studies are important to fully grasp the long-term ecological impacts of this contamination. It’s essential to understand how radium and other pollutants accumulate in aquatic life to protect endangered species and maintain the health of our ecosystems.


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