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Appalachian Drilling Waste Remains A Growing Concern

Landfills in West Virginia will stop accepting drilling sludge after the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) discovered that a site in Harrison County recently accepted the material after it was rejected at another dump across the state line in Pennsylvania.

The WVDEP conducted radiation tests on about 12 tons of the sludge at the Meadowfill landfill in Bridgeport on Friday, said spokesman Tom Aluise. The agency wants to know more about why the Arden landfill in Washington County, PA, rejected the waste before it allows any more of the material to be disposed of at a handful of sites in the state that are permitted to accept drilling waste.

The sludge, or the dissolved oily solids that precipitate in production water and sink to the bottom of storage tanks, originated at a Range Resources Corp. site in southwest Pennsylvania. A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said alarms were set off earlier this year when the waste was trucked to the gates of the Arden landfill, indicating low-levels of radiation that exceeded levels of other waste dumped there.

Aluise said the WVDEP tests on Friday showed similar results, with low-level readings of radiation that only nominally exceeded the levels found in other drilling waste disposed at the Meadowfill site. He said the landfill was allowed to bury the material, but he added that the agency was still waiting on more answers from the DEP. He said until more is known about the waste, landfills in the state will not be allowed to accept the sludge, no matter where it originates. 

Waste Management Inc., which operates the Meadowfill and Arden sites, said its own tests did not indicate any harm to the environment. The company, Aluise said, voluntarily decided to stop accepting the waste. The WVDEP has not issued a formal regulatory order barring landfills from accepting the sludge, but it expects them to voluntarily comply with its request like Waste Management did.

Although the material is not considered to be hazardous and appears similar to soil when dry, concerns about the low-level radioactive waste generated during drilling operations at horizontal well sites across the Appalachian Basin once again seem to be surging.

The latest back-and-forth between Pennsylvania and West Virginia earned widespread attention from local news media. Word of the WVDEP move comes just months after a memo was leaked from the agency that was misinterpreted to read that landfills in the state would be allowed to accept unlimited amounts of solid waste from drilling sites (see Shale Daily,Jan. 13).

At the time, Aluise said that was not the case and clarified that the state's six landfills permitted to accept the waste were given the option of expanding their monthly tonnage limit from 10,000 to 30,000 tons, or constructing an entirely separate cell for things such as drill cuttings.

In March, the state legislature passed a bill that would allow disposal sites to increase their tonnage and required the agency to more closely monitor disposal sites, including a provision that requires radiation monitors to be installed at landfills by January 2015. (see Shale Daily, March 18).

Meanwhile, in Youngstown, OH, FrackFree Mahoning Valley, the same group of activists that has tried three times without success to ban horizontal hydraulic fracturing in the city (see Shale Daily, May 7), continue to voice concerns over a facility that was awarded a permit in Youngstown to test, store and prepare solid drilling waste for disposal.

While Industrial Waste Control/Ground Tech Inc. will provide tank cleaning, decontamination, storage and other services, Austin Masters Services will handle and test radioactive material at the site before its disposal. In a press release issued Thursday, FrackFree Mahoning said the facility will present public health hazards and said state regulators permitted the facility too quickly.

The group said it would hold a town hall meeting next month to discuss the issues with the public, and they've asked the state to revoke permits for the site.

Responding to the ongoing concerns, Jeffrey Dick, chairman of the geological and environmental sciences department at Youngstown State University, told NGI's Shale Daily earlier this year that most concerns are unfounded. He said drill cuttings and sludge contain "minute quantities" of naturally-occurring radiation lower than that found in common building materials and medical supplies that are disposed of in landfills.

The Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association (PIOGA) feels the same way. Since 2011 the organization has been collecting samples of drill cuttings to test the safety of their use in construction and well site reclamation. Since then, PIOGA has collected about 20 samples, but it will need roughly ten more from both vertical and horizontal wells to present to the DEP, which is reviewing applications from operators that want to use the cuttings for reclamation.

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