Disposal of low-level radioactive fracking waste does not harm Michigan’s environment under current rules, a panel appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder determined, and a Van Buren Township landfill could even handle higher radioactivity levels without risk.
Those are among the findings in a report issued Friday by a panel appointed by Snyder. The group of regulators, academics, environmentalists and representatives of the oil and gas, medical and landfill industries was convened after public outcry following Free Press reports last summer on the Wayne Disposal landfill importing radioactive fracking waste from other states.
USEcology, owner of the Wayne Disposal facility between I-94 and Willow Run Airport in Van Buren Township, voluntarily suspended accepting low-activity radioactive waste while the panel convened. A spokesman said Friday the landfilling of the waste, called technologically enhanced, naturally occurring radioactive material or TENORM, would now resume.
“Southeast Michigan is the new ground zero for radioactive frack waste now that the state panel is done with its secret meetings,” said LuAnne Kozma, a campaign director with the nonprofit Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan.
TENORM involves materials whose low, naturally occurring radiation levels are increased through human activities that concentrate them. The controversial oil and gas drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a major generator of it.
A Free Press report last August highlighted Wayne Disposal’s plans to accept up to 36 tons of radioactive fracking sludge from a Pennsylvania oil and gas drilling company — after it had been turned away by landfills in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Wayne Disposal on its website advertises its ability as one of few landfills in the U.S. capable of accepting TENORM waste.
“With the panel’s affirmation of the current disposal limits, we plan to resume normal business operations which may entail disposal of TENORM from a variety of sources, possibly including oil and gas fracking activities,” USEcology spokesman David Crumrine said Friday.
He added that the panel found licensed hazardous waste facilities like Wayne Disposal are “especially well equipped to dispose of TENORM,” with their special liners and enhanced monitoring.
“I’m shocked and appalled,” said Justin Juriga, a Van Buren Township resident who lives less than a mile from the landfill.
“There are higher forces at work here, political higher forces.”
Ken Yale, chief of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s radiological protection section, said the panel, over the course of multiple meetings, determined the state’s radiation limit of 50 picocuries per gram, established in 1996, remains an acceptable level.
There is no federal standard for radiation levels related to TENORM and its disposal. The North Dakota Department of Health — a state where oil and gas drilling is particularly intense — commissioned a study on TENORM landfilling risks from the Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy research laboratory at the University of Chicago. The study, released last month, found drill pad workers, those transporting TENORM and the general public all face exposure risks far below the federal and international standard for maximum radioactive doses. But to minimize the exposure risk to landfill workers, the laboratory recommended a number of steps, including restricting annual TENORM volumes at landfills to 25,000 tons per year and the radioactivity levels of the waste to no more than 50 picocuries per gram.
Yale said the findings of the North Dakota study influenced the Michigan panel’s recommendations.
Wayne Disposal had requested the DEQ allow it a tenfold increase in allowed radioactivity, up to 500 picocuries per gram, last year, but withdrew the request last October. Yale said the panel’s report found “because of the extra controls that are in place at a Type I landfill, the DEQ could consider evaluating that for possibly having a higher level,” but no plans are imminent.
Wayne Disposal takes materials at higher radiological levels after an adjacent USEcology facility, Michigan Disposal, mixes them with inert substances to reduce radioactivity to an acceptably low level for the landfill.
The panel recommends that all landfills accepting TENORM restrict its placement to at least 10 feet below the bottom of a landfill cap, and said DEQ Director Dan Wyant should consider requiring landfills to restrict the total volume of TENORM waste placed annually, to limit worker exposure. Radium-226, commonly found in TENORM, decays to radon 222, a potential carcinogen through inhalation.
“You could get into an issue, and you have to look at worker safety,” Yale said. “Their exposure may be above what would be allowed for the public, and that would mean you either put them in the classification of radiation workers, which includes a number of requirements for their protection, or you limit the volume that is being brought in to the landfills.”
The panel’s findings can be reviewed here. A 30-day public comment period is under way, and comments may be submitted by e-mail to DEQ-TENORMPublicComments@michigan.gov, or by mail to 525 W. Allegan St., Lansing, MI 48933.
DEQ officials will review the comments and reconvene the governor’s panel if necessary to address any issues they raise, Yale said.
Juriga said the panel’s findings, and the landfill’s expanding activity disposing of radioactive fracking waste, leave few good choices.
“As a community, do we band together, pool our resources and look at some legal recourse? Is that a thoughtful option? Or do I just move away from the township I grew up in, the community I love and adore, the watershed I’ve been a part of and tried to protect my whole life? This is what I have to weigh.”
This article was written by Keith Matheny from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.