The fracking process used to extract natural gas has been vilified for the millions of gallons of fresh water it uses, and the amount of waste water it produces.
But drilling also generates leftover dirt, rocks, and mud that gets trucked off to landfills. Many people have raised concerns about the potential contaminants in that dirt, and whether it poses an environmental threat. From Ohio Public Radio member station WCPN, Michelle Kanu tells us about the radioactive nature of that waste and what the state is doing to keep tabs on it.
Radioactivity is everywhere, but it’s concentrated - to varying degrees - in materials like radium or uranium found deep in the ground. When companies drill for natural gas, they bring some of those radioactive elements to the surface mixed in the leftover dirt and mud. That waste can be hazardous to living organisms, unless it’s handled carefully.
Ohio allows drillers to dispose of their waste in landfills. How much of it is radioactive is something state regulators aren’t stringently keeping track of.
Rick Simmers—chief of oil and gas with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources—says the state relies on the drillers to keep records of their solid waste—and the state reviews those records on occasion.
Simmers: “The company has to track where they took it, the landfill has to record that they received it, so it would be to verify in an audit or an investigation type situation that that indeed occurred.”
Recently, Governor Kasich included a provision in his budget bill that will require gas drillers to test their solid waste for radiation before it gets shipped off. They will also have to share the results with the EPA and Department of Health. Simmers says that’s a little different from the way companies reported their radiation testing results in the past.
Simmers: “Historically the test would be done by the company, and then that test would be shared by the company with the landfill. The change would require the company to share that test also with the two government agencies.”
Many environmental advocates - already unhappy with the current law – aren’t satisfied that the NEW law will do enough to keep landfills safe. They’re concerned the state isn’t tracking this dirt closely enough.
Ron Prosek is the vice president of NEOGAP—the network for oil and gas accountability and protection. He worries that relying on companies to keep their own records could leave state regulators in the dark if a driller illegally dumps their waste. He cites the recent case in Youngstown in which a company is accused of dumping fracking wastewater down a storm sewer.
Prosek: “For example, in the Lupo case in Youngstown, we have a well operator who was also operating a disposal well and self-reporting. The problem with that is you can not hold individual well operators accountable if you have a system like that.”
The same thing can happen in solid waste disposal Prosek says.
But it’s not just lax reporting that worries Julie Weatherington-Rice, a biological engineering professor at Ohio State University. It’s the radiation. She says even a small amount can pose a health threat.
Rice: “It can trigger various kinds of cancer.”
Rice says she’s especially concerned that the potentially radioactive dirt gets spread over the top of landfills and could cause a problem if the dirt blows around, or gets wet.
Rice: “When it rains on that landfill, or when they use water for dust control, and it works its way down, it mixes into something called leachate which is the liquids that form in the landfill. And that leachate gets collected and it gets taken to a waste water treatment plant to be treated. Well now you’ve got leachate that’s radioactive.”
Rice says the fear is that those treatment plants could contaminate the water ways they drain into, like this one in Stark County.
Across the street from the Canton Water Treatment Plant, a giant round drainage pipe dumps treated water into the main branch of the Nimishillen Creek. In a few months, this plant will accept leachate from a landfill several miles south, thanks to Canton City Council’s recent approval.
Eric Akin is a member of NEFCO, the planning agency for Portage, Stark, Summit and Wayne Counties.
Akin: “There’s 50 feet from the pipe to the creek. So anything that comes from the plant in discharge will impact the creek.”
Akin’s group tries to guard the creek from nearby industrial activities. He says there haven’t been any known cases of leachate hurting the creek, but they’re monitoring the creek closely.
Akin: “It’s not just local. It all flows downstream. There’s no boundaries. So what we’re doing as a collective community in the Nimishillen Creek watershed affects downstream of that and all the way down into the Gulf of Mexico.”
That’s why Julie Weatherington-Rice says the state needs more information about the radioactive nature of the Utica Shale and until then, the state shouldn’t allow solid waste from the Utica in landfills.
Rice: “These landfills were never designed and never sited to be low level radioactive waste landfills. It should not be going there.”
Over the next few weeks, environmental advocates plan to lobby the legislature to prohibit disposing of radioactive waste in landfills.