A Wayne County hazardous waste landfill, under scrutiny for taking other state’s low-activity radioactive wastes from oil and gas fracking, has withdrawn a request to state regulators to increase its allowed radiation limits tenfold.
Wayne Disposal Inc., operated by USEcology in Van Buren Township, made the decision as Gov. Rick Snyder has convened a special panel looking at the state’s regulations on disposing of technologically enhanced, naturally occurring radioactive materials, or TENORM.
It’s the low-activity radiation that is always present in nature, concentrated to higher levels through man-made processes such as oil and gas drilling. That includes the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which fluids are injected into an underground mineral layer to rupture it and capture oil and gas that can’t be obtained through traditional drilling methods.
“We felt it made sense to pull the request while the governor’s panel assesses activity level limits for disposal in the state,” USEcology spokesman David Crumrine said.
The landfill, located between I-94 and Willow Run Airport, can currently dispose of material with up to 50 picocuries of radioactivity per gram. An affiliated facility also at the Van Buren Township site, Michigan Disposal Inc., mixes radioactive materials with inert substances to reduce radioactivity to an acceptably low level for the landfill. Wayne Disposal officials last October sought approval from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to increase the allowed radioactivity limit for the landfill to 500 picocuries per gram.
DEQ officials were in the process of conducting their own testing to determine whether the radiation increase was appropriate, Ken Yale, DEQ’s radiological protection section chief, earlier told the Free Press.
USEcology announced in late August it would suspend accepting oil and gas drilling-related waste while Snyder’s TENORM policy group meets. The Wayne Disposal site was set to receive up to 36 tons of radioactive fracking sludge from a Pennsylvania oil and gas developer. The sludge had previously been rejected by landfills in both Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said Snyder’s TENORM work group has met twice, with at least three more meetings planned before the end of the year. The meetings, which include representatives from Wayne Disposal, academia, the oil and gas industry and other constituencies, have not been open for public attendance or comment.
“The group is working through a science-driven conversation to develop thoughtful recommendations,” Wurfel said. “This is more effectively done in this forum. Most of the experts assembled for this conversation are members of the public. And the recommendations from the group will absolutely be made available to the public.”
LuAnne Kozma, head of the grassroots group Ban Michigan Fracking, disagrees with the approach.
“I think they already know what they plan to do,” she said. “I don’t see how it’s a review without the public being able to question the process.”
Very little public interest has been expressed to the DEQ about the TENORM work group, Wurfel said.
“Whether that is because Michigan’s standard was roundly reaffirmed by authorities like the U.S. Department of Energy, or because we’re talking about natural radioactive material at levels far lower than a chemotherapy diaper, I can’t say,” he said.
Van Buren Township resident Justin Juriga, who lives less than a mile from the Wayne Disposal landfill, questioned that “dimissive” response, and noted the issue is the ongoing accumulation of the low-level radioactive material.
“This dump is literally 800 feet away from Belleville Lake, in the Huron River watershed, which leads into the Great Lakes,” he said.
While the landfill has liners that may last even up to a century, radium-226, the radioactive material in the fracking TENORM, has a half-life of 1,600 years, Juriga noted.
“When you bring this into an area so close to a watershed, so close to a highly populated area, that draws concern,” he said.
“It might be safe. It might be safe for the next couple of hundred years. But what happens after that?”
Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @keithmatheny.