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This microscopic image shows the diverse makeup of minerals found in drill cuttings. Image by Mudgineer, original work, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia

States pass the buck on radioactive waste disposal

Shane Thielges | Shale Plays Media

An article today on Public Radio International explores the literal fallout of Marcellus shale drilling: irradiated rock fragments known as drill cuttings.

The Marcellus is an unusually radioactive geological formation. PRI reports that studies have found its radiation levels are about three times as high as comparable shales, and samples of underground, mineral-heavy water known as “brine” collected by New York regulators were determined to be about 15,000 times more radioactive than background surface levels. In consequence, any drilling operation into the shale brings a lot of this radioactive matter to the surface – and no one’s quite sure what to do with it.

Typically, fracking waste is sent to landfills equipped to safely contain and store it. Many landfills in the region have upgraded and expanded their facilities, constructing storage tanks and liquid waste solidifiers in hopes of attracting business from the booming industry. But random incidents involving highly irradiated materials, as well as concerns with inconsistent state monitoring policies, have led to tightened regulations or outright restrictions on accepting the waste.

An incident last May saw the Pennsylvania-based Arden Landfill reject a load of sludge for being too radioactive – only for the offending matter to be passed along to West Virginia. In response, the Bridgeport-based Meadowfill Landfill was ordered by the Department of Environmental Protection to stop accepting shipments pending further investigation.

Another Pennsylvania-based company, Austin Master Services, recently held a presentation in Youngstown, Ohio to educate the city’s residents on radioactivity testing performed there. The company analyzes samples of drill cuttings, production sludge and wastewater for levels of radium 226 and radium 228. The company hoped to assuage growing local concerns of contamination from samples it sent to a city landfill.

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PRI talked to Larry Shilling, vice-president of Casella Waste Systems which operates the Chemung County landfill in New York. His company accepts drill cuttings from Pennsylvania, and he says tests show very little radioactivity in them:

“The highest reading we got from any of those four samples was 4.3 picocuries per gram, still under the cleanup standard that EPA set for cleaning up sites.”

Shilling would like New York regulators to allow him to expand and accept even more solid waste, but state regulators’ concerns are hobbling such efforts. PRI quotes Duke University geochemist Avner Vengosh, who says that in landfill conditions even solid wastes are subjected to acidic and chemical solutions and can leak into water systems. Fracking has been under a moratorium in New York since 2008 due to similar concerns regarding the practice’s health effects.

States near the Marcellus, including Connecticut and New Jersey, have recently passed legislation barring any storage or disposal of shale waste. The recent New York Supreme Court decision to allow small communities to control local fracking rules is also expected to spur some into banning waste storage. The public has made its aversion to radiation clear, but even if nobody wants the stuff near them it still has to end up somewhere.

Like it or not, fracking is here to stay. The industry provides jobs and money to an economy sorely in need of both and gives the US a leg up in global politics. Waste matter is going to be an ongoing problem, and if we want to see fewer “accidental” spills and illegal dump deals, we need to stop passing the buck and get serious about finding a long-term solution.

Read Public Radio International’s story here: Here’s another complication for fracking — radioactive waste