Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, agreed that the water supplies should be tested to put public concerns to rest.
"We'd absolutely support additional testing," Klaber said. "It's important to know the levels that might be entering water supplies."
But beyond the calls for more testing, there was little agreement about the significance of the risk to water supplies. Industry officials played down the threat from radioactive materials that naturally occur in deep rock formations, saying that elevated radioactivity at the well site is far different from the diluted material that is discharged into waterways. Anti-drilling advocates said that radioactive material was only one of many pollutants associated with drilling that require stricter regulation.
U.S. Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D., N.Y.), who has introduced legislation to impose more federal regulation on gas drilling, called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force states to test waterways for a range of materials associated with hydraulic fracturing, the controversial technique that drillers use to release natural gas locked up in the mile-deep formation.
"Given this new information about natural gas drilling wastewater containing radioactive materials at levels ranging from hundreds and even thousands of times higher than what is considered acceptable, EPA should immediately require that all drinking water intakes within active natural gas drilling areas be tested for radioactivity and all other toxic substances," Hinchey wrote to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
The Times stopped short of saying that drinking water is unsafe, partly because of the dearth of data. The newspaper found that no testing for radioactivity has occurred since 2008 at 65 drinking-water-intake plants in Pennsylvania downstream from wastewater-treatment facilities that handle water produced from hydraulic-fracturing operations.
John Hanger, who stepped down in January as secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, joined the call for more testing to address fears that unhealthy levels of radium are in the drinking water.
"Good reasons exist to believe that the answer is no," Hanger said in a blog posting Sunday.
Hanger objected to media accounts that have portrayed the state's regulation of gas drilling as lax, when he said the DEP had more than doubled its inspection staff in the last two years, raised drilling fees, and strengthened standards for well construction and wastewater treatment. An independent audit last year gave the state's regulatory structure high marks.
Hanger also noted that about 70 percent of drilling wastewater is now treated and recycled in new wells rather than being discharged through treatment plants.
Hanger said he was unfamiliar with some reports cited by the Times.
"I was informed by agency radiation experts that the radiation levels were not a threat to truck drivers, workers at sewage treatment facilities or the public," he said in the blog posting. "To be clear the buck stopped with me up to January 18th, 2011 and I believe the agency staff were handling this issue in a serious, careful manner. I still believe that to be in the case."
Richard Yost, an EPA spokesman, said a continuing national study of hydraulic fracturing that is scheduled to be completed in 2012 is examining ways to improve the ability to measure, identify, and treat radioisotopes and other contaminants in drilling wastewater.
Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or email@example.com.