Two months ago, Range Resources trucked two small containers of waste from its natural gas drilling operations in Washington County, Pennsylvania, to a local landfill.
Officials from the Arden Landfill in Chartiers turned away the material, when their normal monitoring turned up higher levels of radioactivity than Pennsylvania deems acceptable for normal landfill disposal.
After storing the waste at its well sites, Range Resources earlier this week hauled it to West Virginia, where it was accepted for disposal at the Meadowfill Landfill near Bridgeport.
Waste Management, which operates Meadowfill, never tested the material’s radioactivity levels. The facility doesn’t even have the equipment to do so.
West Virginia doesn’t yet require radioactivity monitoring of natural gas drilling waste that’s taken to the state’s landfills. Lawmakers created such a requirement, but the mandate passed earlier this year doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2015, noted Lisa Kardell, a spokeswoman for Waste Management.
Local citizens and environmental groups, concerned about the impacts of the Marcellus Shale gas boom in northern West Virginia, have pointed to the potential for radioactive waste as one potential problem. The radioactivity monitoring requirement passed as part of a Tomblin administration bill aimed at avoiding a conflict between the huge influx of drilling wastes and West Virginia’s longstanding limits on landfill tonnage.
Radiation is a health concern because the particles and energy released by the decay of atoms can damage molecules inside the body. Humans are exposed to radiation all the time from many sources, but at higher levels and chronic exposures, radiation can cause cell damage and lead to cancer or other serious health problems.
Naturally occurring radioactive materials, known as NORMs, exist in shale formations. When disturbed by human activity, such as gas production, these materials become what are called technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials, or TENORMs. They can be found in drill cuttings, “flowback” water that is returned to the surface after being used to break apart shale formations and release gas, brine wastes, and natural gas itself.
Last year, a legislatively mandated study by West Virginia University cautioned that some samples of drilling wastes contained levels of radiation that violated federal drinking water standards. Department of Environmental Protection officials dismissed those findings, saying there was no route for the wastes to enter drinking water supplies.
Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources, said that the wastes taken to the Meadowfill landfill were initially found by the Pennsylvania facility to be “a little above background levels, but nowhere near unsafe levels.”
John Poister, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said the material in question was two containers of flowback sludge. Poister said its radioactivity was measured at 212 microrems, which is above the 150-microrem level at which Pennsylvania recommends normal landfills not accept drilling waste.
“We just want to be sure that the landfills are vigilant if there is any question about a load,” Poister said.
Pitzarella said that the initial screening by the Pennsylvania landfill was conducted with a hand-held unit, and when the unit was moved a short distance away, the levels reduced to background amounts.
Still, following standard procedures, Range Resources returned the material to a drilling site, where it was stored, more fully tested and another disposal site located. Pitzarella described the amount of material involved as “very small.” He said he did not have an exact volume, but that it was less than a pickup truck load. “Picture several wheelbarrows,” he said.
Pitzarella said that the Meadowfill site was the closest landfill with appropriate permits, and that the incident “demonstrates that both Pennsylvania and West Virginia have rigorous standards that best meet the unique needs of their states and that the industry has clear best practices in place to also manage these issues.”
Kardell, the Waste Management spokeswoman, issued a prepared statement that said “before accepting drilling waste at Meadowfill landfill, all required tests are performed and documentation is submitted to the WVDEP for approval.”
But, the statement noted, “current regulations [in West Virginia] do not require radiation monitors to detect levels of naturally occurring radioactive materials.” Legislation passed this year requires such monitors to be installed by Jan. 1, 2015, Kardell noted.
Kelley Gillenwater, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia DEP, said that her agency is in the process of writing rules to implement that new law. An emergency rule is expected to be issued perhaps as early as next month, Gillenwater said.
Gillenwater noted that Waste Management operates both the Pennsylvania landfill that rejected the material and the West Virginia facility that accepted it. She said that the company said about 12 tons of the material were disposed of at the Meadowfill site. Gillenwater said that West Virginia inspectors began investigating after reading a Pittsburgh newspaper account.
“The WVDEP ordered Waste Management to stop accepting this material at Meadowfill until the agency gets more information on why it was rejected at the Arden Landfill in Pennsylvania,” Gillenwater said.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.