Workers at a natural gas well site near Burlington, Pennsylvania, in April 2010. Photograph: Ralph Wilson/AP

A controversial new method of natural-gas drilling, embraced rapidly across the US, has contaminated water supplies with radioactive waste, according to an investigation by the New York Times. The paper said internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators showed that the dangers to the public from the drilling method – hydraulic fracturing – were greater than previously understood.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses huge volumes of water, chemicals and sand injected into rock at high pressure to release natural gas. Its development has unleashed a natural gas boom in the US and around the world. But the NYT said the waste water contained dangerously high levels of radioactivity. It was being sent to treatment plants that were not designed to deal with or being discharged into rivers that supply drinking water.

The NYT said its main findings included:

• More than 1.3bn gallons of waste water 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 waste water and discharged waste that was only partly treated into rivers, lakes and streams.
• Of more than 179 wells producing waste water 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 waste water carrying more than 1,000 times the amount of radioactive elements considered acceptable.

The investigation comes amid growing concern about the potential dangers of natural gas drilling as it spreads from western states to the more densely populated north-east. The investigative website ProPublica has published an extensive series on the threats to water supplies from hydraulic fracturing. It has also raised doubts about whether natural gas can indeed offer a solution to climate change, noting that the mining process is extremely energy and water intensive.

The dangers of natural gas drilling were also the subject of a gritty documentary, Gasland, which was nominated for an Academy Award. The film’s director , Josh Fox, told the Guardian: “All these things are starting to add up in a very clear picture of a massive failure to protect public health.”

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