Friday, June 24, 2016

PA, NY, others struggle with radioactive fracking waste

Byproducts of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, create radioactive waste like the truckload above in WV.

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

This story was written by Jie Jenny Zou of the Center for Public Integrity and 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.

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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, relyikng 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.

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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.

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.

Read the full story here

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