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22nd June 2016
Published on Monday, June 20, 2016

Hot Mess: States Struggle to Deal with Radioactive Fracking Waste

Potentially dangerous drilling byproducts are being dumped in landfills throughout the Marcellus Shale with few controls

byJie Jenny Zou, Center for Public Integrity

This story was produced in collaboration with the Ohio Valley ReSource, a public media partnership covering Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

The Marcellus Shale has transformed the Appalachian Basin into an energy juggernaut. Even amid a recent drilling slowdown, regional daily production averages enough natural gas to power more than 200,000 U.S. homes for a year.

But the rise of hydraulic fracturing over the past decade has created another boom: tons of radioactive materials experts call an “orphan” waste stream. No federal agency fully regulates oil and gas drilling byproducts — which include brine, sludge, rock and soiled equipment — leaving tracking and handling to states that may be reluctant to alienate energy interests.

“Nobody can say how much of any type of waste is being produced, what it is, and where it’s ending up,” said Nadia Steinzor of the environmental group Earthworks, who co-wrote a report on shale waste. (Earthworks has received funding from The Heinz Endowments, as has the Center for Public Integrity).

The group is among several suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate drilling waste under a federal system that tracks hazardous materials from creation to final disposal, or “cradle to grave.” The EPA declined to comment on the lawsuit but is scheduled to file a response in court by early July.

Geologists have long known soil and rock contain naturally occurring radioactive materials that can become concentrated through activities like fracking, in which sand and chemicals are pumped thousands of feet underground to release oil and gas from tight rock. But concerns about fracking largely have focused on injection wells and seismic activity, with less attention paid to “hot” waste that arrives at landfills and sets off radiation alarms.

An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity shows that states are struggling to keep pace with this waste stream, relying largely on industry to self-report and self-regulate. States have also been slow to assess and curb risks from exposure to the waste, which can remain radioactive for millennia. Excessive radiation exposure can increase cancer risks; radon gas, for example, has been tied to lung cancer.

The four states in the Marcellus are taking different approaches to the problem; none has it under control. Pennsylvania has increasingly restricted disposal of drilling waste, while West Virginia allows some landfills to take unlimited amounts. Ohio has yet to formalize waste rules, despite starting the process in 2013. New York, which banned fracking, accepts drilling waste with little oversight.

Inconsistencies have raised concerns among regulators and activists that waste is being “shopped around” by companies seeking the path of least resistance, or unsafely reused. In March, Kentucky’s attorney general opened an investigation into two landfills he alleged illegally accepted radioactive drilling waste from West Virginia. A separate investigation is ongoing at the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, where officials exchanged emails about whether landfill workers and schoolchildren might have been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

Bill Kennedy, a radiation expert at the consulting firm Dade Moeller, called radioactive drilling waste “virtually unregulated” and said consistent standards are needed to “protect workers, protect the general public, protect the environment.”

Kennedy co-chairs a committee working with regulators and industry to develop guidelines and recommendations for states. “You can’t rely on industry to go it alone and self-regulate,” he said.

While radiation emitted from fracking waste may pale in comparison to that from nuclear power plant waste, Steinzor said regulators don’t know the cumulative impacts of landfilling the loads over time. “There’s been such a push to expand the industry and to drill as much as possible,” she said. “No one has had the desire or political will to slow the industry down long enough to figure out what the risks truly are.”

Race to the bottom

Trucks rolling into West Virginia landfills grind to a near halt as they pass fixed poles - monitors - that detect radiation above a set threshold. If the monitors go off, drivers reverse and pass through them again. After a second alarm, landfill staff members check drivers and trucks with hand-held detectors.

An emergency state law required landfills to install the monitors in 2015 and submit reports detailing any alarms to West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health and Human Resources within 24 hours.

More than 70 alarms have been reported since, but what happened to the waste after they were set off is unclear. The reports routinely lack basic information, such as whether the waste was accepted or rejected, where it came from and how much of it there was.

One report, for example, shows the landfill in Wetzel County, West Virginia, took in 14 tons of industrial bag filters from an unknown source in April 2015. The filters weren’t labeled as drilling waste but contained radium 226, an isotope associated with fracking.

Landfills must reject waste that exceeds state radium limits, yet the amount of radium in the filters was left blank on that form and every other alarm report generated in 2015. Radium 226 remains radioactive for thousands of years, breaking down into gases such as radon.

After the Center contacted the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection about inconsistent or missing information in the reports, officials reviewed the records and acknowledged “discrepancies.” They said they plan to work with state health officials to overhaul the reporting process, including revising the single-page form so it captures more useful information. Such efforts seem warranted: The health department, as a matter of practice, said it has been throwing away the reports it receives. A spokesman declined to comment further.

Scott Mandirola, waste director at the Department of Environmental Protection, said West Virginia regulators are doing their best to keep up with the fracking industry by collaborating with their counterparts in Ohio and Pennsylvania. “Everybody's dealing with it differently,” he said, pointing out widely held concerns that one state will become the preferred dumping ground. “It was obvious there was waste being shopped around.”

Bill Hughes, who sits on the Wetzel County Solid Waste Authority, doubts the state will enact or enforce rules that burden industry. “West Virginia is not going to do anything that Pennsylvania and Ohio are not required to do,” he said.

Last year, the Department of Environmental Protection conducted its first environmental analysis of potential impacts from landfilling drill cuttings. The report, which was mandated by the state Legislature, looked at the threat of groundwater pollution from the leaching of radioactive materials through soil and found “little concern.”

Hughes said it was the first time state legislators had openly acknowledged that drilling waste was more than just dirt and rock and could pose a radiation hazard. The report noted that before the waste was hauled to landfills, oil and gas companies simply buried it in pits on well-pad sites.

Twisting in the wind

On windy days, grit gathers on Toni Bazala’s home in South Huntingdon Township, 40 miles south of Pittsburgh, staining her white shutters black. A chain-link fence separates her property from the Yukon landfill 200 feet away.

“We look like we’re in a desert,” said Bazala, 74. The black dust from the landfill, she said, is like “an acid that goes down your throat.”

Max Environmental Technologies, Inc., which runs Yukon and another nearby site, has footed the bills for annual cleanings of her house’s exterior and paid for a new air conditioner, she said.

The company recently surprised Bazala and her husband with a legal waiver restricting them from speaking publicly about the cleanings in court, or to state and federal regulators. “What it amounted to was, ‘If you don’t sign this paper, you don’t get your house pressure-washed.’”

The retired couple refused to sign and has no plans to leave. “I wouldn’t even dream of selling my house,” Bazala said. “We don’t have much, but what we have is ours.”

Former township supervisor Mel Cornell said relocation isn’t an option many can afford. He spent years inspecting Yukon, often raising concerns about radiation measured on site, but quit and retired early to Florida last year. “They can’t clean people’s bodies when they breathe that in,” Cornell said of the dust. On at least one occasion, he said, he vomited while inspecting the landfill because the stench was so overpowering.

The township has repeatedly sued Max Environmental for producing a strong odor Cornell called “burnt cement,” which began in 2013 when Yukon started accepting drilling waste. The company has tried masking the odor with a bubblegum-scented deodorizer and paid a $10,000 fine to the township in monthly $25 installments.

Township residents say penalties have failed to spur lasting improvements or quash Yukon’s expansion plans. Yukon has been inspected more than 200 times for solid waste issues since March 2013, racking up more than $200,000 in fines. The company admitted to odor and other violations in an August consent decree with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Max Environmental’s Carl Spadaro, who previously worked for the department, declined to be interviewed but wrote in an email to the Center that the company has “shown time and time again that we strive to operate in compliance.” Homes have been pressure-cleaned “for many years to remove pollen, mildew and staining,” he wrote. When asked about the waiver Bazala refused to sign, Spadaro added, “We suggested to a neighbor that to continue this service, an acknowledgement of the reason for the service would be appropriate."

Pennsylvania regulators have increasingly restricted disposal of radioactive waste, instituting monthly intake limits on landfills. But the rules keep changing. Sludge, which is left over from drilling waste processed by treatment plants, is considered highly concentrated and radioactive. But the state has gone back and forth on exactly how much of it landfills can take from one year to the next.

In a panel discussion last year, Spadaro called Pennsylvania’s protocols “rather stringent,” saying they force landfills like Yukon to scale back the waste it takes. Landfills in the state maxed out monthly radioactive waste caps at least 87 times last year, often forcing haulers to try elsewhere.

But some haulers can be persistent. In January, a driver was caught trying to dispose of the same load from a northeastern Pennsylvania well pad three times at the same landfill in one day.

Gregg Macey, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, reviewed hundreds of Department of Environmental Protection emails and other documents obtained in an open-records request by Earthjustice, an environmental law group. His report highlighted the agency’s growing confusion over increasing numbers of radiation alarms at landfills and mislabeled waste.

Emails from 2010 to 2013 show regulators reviewed records and found waste taken by landfills that should have gone to out-of-state facilities equipped to handle low-level radioactive debris. Officials also expressed concern that landfill operators didn’t fully grasp how to handle the new waste stream.

...continued in Part 2