A project that would use nearly 4,000 tons of drill cuttings from natural gas wells in Pennsylvania to help build a road in the northeastern part of the state has been approved by regulators, marking the first time that the material has been authorized for use at a non-industrial site.

Pennsylvania-based Clean Earth Inc. plans to use 3,950 tons of drill cuttings on a mile-long road at a hunting club in Lycoming County. How to use and dispose of the small pieces of shale rock that break away during drilling and come to the surface during flowback has been controversial across much of the Appalachian Basin. Clean Earth withdrew plans last year to expand an airport in Tioga County, PA, with drill cuttings after controversy flared up over the plan, which called for using the cuttings on an embankment near a tributary to a gorge in the area.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said it has informed the company that its approval of the Lycoming County project would be the last under the existing permitting process for drill cuttings. The state has allowed drill cuttings to be used at brownfields, old industrial sites across the state, and Clean Earth has used more than 170,000 tons at such sites in Pennsylvania.

Last March, however, DEP said it would not renew research and development permits that allowed the use of the cuttings at brownfields. Those projects must now go through a standard permit application and review process.

Clean Earth is one of the largest specialty waste companies in the country, providing remediation, disposal and recycling of contaminated soil, dredged material and drill cuttings, among other things.

Compared to other rock, shale contains high amounts of organic materials, which naturally attracted radioactive isotopes millions of years ago when the sediment was deposited. While the radioactive material in the cuttings is minimal, environmental organizations have expressed concerns about Clean Earth’s latest project, saying leaching from surface drill cuttings could contaminate the water table.

The project is expected to be complete by December. Going forward, permits for the use of drill cuttings in the state would also be subject to public participation and comment, the DEP said.

State and federal regulations don’t classify drill cuttings as hazardous waste, but they’re most often disposed of in a licensed solid waste landfill. Anyone wanting to use drill cuttings in Ohio for beneficial uses such as construction materials, has to obtain approval from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

One company treats the cuttings there and turns them into clean fill dirt. In West Virginia, just a handful of landfills accept the wastes, where they’ve proved more controversial (see Shale Daily, July 17, 2015).