The debate over air and water quality near horizontal drilling sites in West Virginia has given way in recent weeks to one surrounding the delivery and disposal of solid waste, such as drill cuttings, in landfills across the state.

The small pieces of shale rock that break away during unconventional drilling due to the action of the bit teeth and dredged up during flowback have prompted the industry's opponents and others with concerns to cry foul over the environmental and public health consequences of the rock's naturally-occurring radioactive properties. 

The debate over solid waste has raged in nearby Ohio and Pennsylvania in recent years, but a story by the Associated Press (AP) in December appears to have opened the floodgates and welcomed a string of varying press reports about the safety of drill cuttings in West Virginia landfills.

The AP story centered on a memo circulated in July from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to landfills in the state, acknowledging that solid waste disposal has been on the rise as a result of legislation passed in 2011 requiring drill cuttings to be disposed of underground in regulated landfills.

Although the story explained the requirements of the memo's instructions and included comments from various stakeholders, it began by describing a new rule that "specifies that landfills can accept unlimited amounts of solid waste from horizontal gas drilling." The story gave way to a string of reports about the topic and pushed the issue into the limelight.

DEP spokesman Tom Aluise said landfills can't accept unlimited amounts of solid waste from drilling sites and said the memo -- obtained by NGI's Shale Daily -- essentially gave disposal sites a choice between applying to expand their facilities monthly tonnage limit from 10,000 to 30,000 tons, or constructing an entirely separate cell, or hole in the ground, for drill cuttings.

"The best way I can sum it up from our perspective is that there is no conclusive evidence from a radioactive standpoint that would preclude us from placing drill cuttings in landfills," Aluise said. "We're even taking a proactive approach in considering the requirement that municipal landfills install radiation detection equipment at the entrance or the scales of their facilities. We've been in contact with Pennsylvania a lot about this issue, which has been testing their landfills for radiation since 2002 because of issues with medical waste, and there has not been an issue with drill cuttings for them."

Currently, just six of the state's 22 landfills are accepting drill cuttings. Aluise said one of those facilities has already constructed a separate cell and another is in the process of doing so. The other four landfills accepting solid waste from drilling sites have not exceeded their tonnage limit to a point where they would be required under the memo to apply for an upgrade to their facilities.

The specifics have done little to quiet the industry's critics, though, who maintain the radioactive and toxic wastes are a major hazard for ground water and the air around the sites. A legislative coordinator for the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, Norm Steenstra, was quoted by the AP as saying "radioactivity is the gift that keeps on giving."

"As far as putting drill cuttings in public landfills, it's the most environmentally-friendly way we can do it," Aluise said. "The leachate is monitored, landfills have groundwater monitoring and leak detection equipment, and they're double-lined and watched for 30 years after they're closed. The other option is disposing or storing [cuttings] in pits near well pads, which wouldn't be properly regulated."

Jeffrey Dick, chairman of the geological and environmental sciences department at Youngstown State University, went one step further and said drill cuttings shouldn't be disposed of in cramped landfills to begin with. He said they pose little harm to the public and simply dumping them in a rock quarry or another rural area might suffice.

"There's very minute quantities of radiation in this stuff, and it's not at all dangerous," Dick said. "There are common building materials surrounding us each day that have more radioactive materials in them, but you don't hear anyone cry out about that. Virtually every element has some form of radioactivity."

The source of radioactive material in shale rock amounts to simple chemistry and physics, Dick said. When compared to other forms of rock, shale contains high amounts of organic materials, which naturally attracted radioactive isotopes millions of years ago when the sediment was deposited.

The legislation passed in 2011, called the Natural Gas Horizontal Well Control Act, mandated a series of studies about public health concerns, air quality, impoundments and well classifications, among other things. Those reports were mostly completed last year and researchers at West Virginia Univeristy that were to gather drill cuttings for toxicity tests had to exclude the toxicity findings after they said operators did not cooperate in turning over the samples.

Although federal law excludes drilling waste from being regulated as hazardous, Aluise said municipal landfills in the state are required to hold a special permit that requires them to certify that drill cuttings have been properly tested for high-levels of toxicity before disposal. Cuttings are often screened and separated from the liquid mud system at drilling sites and monitored for composition, size, shape, color and other properties by the mud engineer and other personnel before disposal deliveries begin.

Aluise said it was unclear if the state or academic researchers would persist in trying to obtain horizontal drill cuttings for toxicity tests in the future.