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Landfill taking radioactive waste has history of violations, leaks, fires

Keith Matheny | Detroit Free Press

Despite assurances that a Belleville landfill and its partner facility in Van Buren Township that accept radioactive fracking waste are safe, they have been cited for at least 15 violations in the last decade and fined more than $471,000, a Free Press review of state and federal records shows.

Wayne Disposal’s owner, USEcology, which also owns neighboring Michigan Disposal, on just under 600 acres between Willow Run Airport and I-94, cited its record of “safe, secure and compliant disposal” as a reason why it’s an appropriate site for out-of-state, radioactive fracking waste.

But violations cited by regulators from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, revealed incidents including a leak in the hazardous waste landfill’s primary protective liner; toxic leachate spills into surface water; improper venting and monitoring of stored underground hazardous waste; disposing of hazardous waste in nonhazardous landfill locations, and failing to control chemical reactions during processing that caused fires on-site. DEQ records show at least nine fires have started in Michigan Disposal’s processing facility in the past nine years as a result of toxic chemicals reacting with each other during treatment.

Despite the violations and mishaps, the Wayne Disposal landfill got DEQ permission in 2012 to just about double its size, to a total capacity of nearly 22.5 million cubic yards.

The landfill drew attention with the revelation last month that it planned to receive up to 36 tons of low-activity, radioactive fracking sludge from a Pennsylvania oil and gas driller. The waste had earlier been rejected by landfills in both Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Amid the ensuing public outcry over health, property and environmental concerns — the Wayne Disposal landfill is less than a mile from Belleville Lake and the Huron River — Gov. Rick Snyder called for a panel of experts to review the state’s regulations for “technologically enhanced, naturally occurring radioactive material,” or TENORM, and USEcology officials announced they would stop accepting oil and gas-related wastes while the panel does its review. Two state lawmakers, Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, and Rep. Dian Slavens, D-Canton, have proposed bills to ban the import of radioactive fracking waste into Michigan.

Michigan’s current standard for placing TENORM in landfills is to reduce its radioactivity to 50 picocuries per gram or less. USEcology has asked the DEQ to revise its waste analysis plan to allow it to increase the radiation limit tenfold, to 500 picocuries per gram. The DEQ is analyzing the request.

“At no point has the operation of this facility jeopardized the health of the public or the environment,” company spokesman David Crumrine said.

But that is of little solace to nearby residents like Ashley Peters of Van Buren Township, who lives less than a mile from Wayne Disposal with her husband and three children, ranging in age from 5 to 9 years old.

“One time it smelled of gas everywhere outside,” she said. “We also have had other bad smells that obviously were coming from the landfill. It makes you wonder what you are breathing.”

Peters said she was unaware of Wayne Disposal taking radioactive fracking waste — or just what the sites take in general.

“I don’t think anything like that should be close to where people live,” she said.

Just 1 of 17 sites

Wayne Disposal is one of 17 hazardous waste-permitted facilities in the country — and one of only three east of the Mississippi River.

“What we do here is necessary and important to support industries and energy production and environmental remediation projects,” Crumrine said.

The waste includes cleanup sites, materials taken out of the environment from areas that for decades did not properly dispose of hazardous wastes, he said.

The landfill takes in hazardous wastes via trucks, and it’s then subjected to laboratory analysis, said Kerry Durnen, director of operations for Wayne Disposal and Michigan Disposal. At the Michigan Disposal facilities, chemists determine what wastes are safe to compile in treatment tanks and treat in a like way to make them inert for landfilling.

But fires have been an alarmingly regular occurrence at USEcology’s Van Buren Township facilities — at least nine fires in the past nine years, ranging from small, candle-like flames in a treatment tank where hazardous waste was being mixed, to an Aug. 9, 2005, explosion and fire that burned for three days and forced the evacuation of about 900 homes in nearby Romulus and Wayne. The latter explosion rained small pellets of metal and other material from the landfill down on homes and yards within a mile radius.

During a Jan. 12, 2010, fire at the landfill, “visible black smoke (was) observed as far away as Willow Run Airport, emissions from which were uncontrolled and discharged to the air,” DEQ officials wrote as they found the company’s then-owner, EQ the Environmental Quality, in a violation in May of that year. USEcology purchased the landfills this past June.

In another fire in the fall of 2010, hazardous waste being dumped from a trailer truck into a treatment tank at Michigan Disposal reacted chemically and caught fire, burning the tank and truck. The DEQ reported that Michigan Disposal’s foam fire suppression system ran out before the fire was extinguished, and assistance was needed from fire crews from Van Buren Township, Belleville and Metropolitan Airport.

The DEQ found that Michigan Disposal did not operate its facility in a way that minimized the possibility of a fire, and that the fire caused uncontrolled air release despite company reports saying there was none.

Lessons were learned from that incident, Durnen said. The fire suppression system now reaches outside the enclosed treatment facility to where offloading trucks park, and the customer who improperly brought flammable materials has been banned from using the landfill, he said.

Both Durnen and Crumrine pointed to the layers of protection that make the hazardous waste landfill unique from a conventional solid waste facility. The landfill features three separate thick, synthetic liners surrounded by several feet of compacted clay, as well as other soil and fill layers. The storage areas also include a leak detection system where water is pumped out and analyzed at least monthly for elevated chemical or metal readings that would indicate a problem. A separate system collects leachate, liquids that flow through the landfill over time and gather some of its components.

Related: Pennsylvania will send radioactive waste to Michigan

‘Fortunate position’

A landfill has operated at the Wayne Disposal site since 1957, and it transitioned into hazardous waste at the inception of rules for such materials in 1980. It’s operated in relative obscurity, punctuated only occasionally by high-profile incidents that grabbed the public’s attention: Like a May 1994 explosion and fire that closed a 3-mile section of I-94 for three hours, and later community outcry and the Van Buren Township board’s ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against the EPA in 1997 when the landfill was one of only a half-dozen in the country approved to accept polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a suspected cancer-causing agent.

Van Buren Township in 2009 approved a resolution of support for Wayne Disposal to obtain modifications to its existing permits. A host community agreement with the company that same year provided for $500,000 in improvements to children’s ball fields adjacent to the landfill, as well as royalties of at least $325,000 per year to the township on waste received, among other concessions. The landfill in turn received a 99-year lease on township land adjacent to it at $1 per year.

The agreement doesn’t mean the township is in agreement with all of USEcology’s decisions, Supervisor Linda Combs said.

“The acceptance of fracking waste from other states, or the potential for the waste to be at levels higher than accepted in other states with hazardous landfills, is disconcerting,” she said. “Unfortunately, Van Buren Township has no legislative power to change regulations on hazardous waste acceptance.”

Combs said the company was forthright about a leak in its liner in 2012, and spoke with the township’s environmental commission on the issue.

“I was a Van Buren Township employee in the mid-1990s, and as a resident I supported the effort when Van Buren Township sued to prevent the allowance of PCBs to be accepted at the facility,” she said. But since then, she said, the company “has taken great strides to proactively demonstrate consideration for residents’ safety and reputable corporate citizenship.”

Expect more growth

Terry Lodge, a Toledo-based environmental attorney frequently involved in fracking issues, said that while a hazardous waste landfill is a more appropriate dumping ground for TENORM waste than a conventional landfill, Michigan should carefully consider whether it wants to become a focal point for disposing of such waste.

“The volume is going to grow as Michigan’s domestic fracking activity picks up,” he said.

Durnen, however, said that TENORM fracking waste remains “a low percentage of our overall waste stream.” He noted that employees who have handled such waste since the DEQ approved it in 2006 have received no additional radiation dosage over naturally ambient levels.

It takes thousands of years for radium 226’s radioactivity, the kind found in TENORM waste, to reduce itself back down to a natural background level, Lodge said.

But Michigan, at a relative pause in its fracking activity compared with other states where it’s taking off, has the ability to look at those other states’ experiences and thoughtfully plot a future course, he said.

“In a way, Michigan is sitting in a somewhat fortunate position, in having controversies like this turn into a dialogue,” Lodge said.

Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or kmatheny@freepress.com. Follow on Twitter @keithmatheny.

 

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