Friday, June 13, 2014

Fracking Waste: A Radioactive Legacy for New York?

        New York Landfills Import Hazardous Fracking Waste -- TAKE ACTION to Protect Our  Environment and Health
By David Kowalski .

Marcellus Shale contains radioactive materials, including uranium and its decay products, radium and radon. Normally, the radioactive material is safely buried deep underground. However, shale gas drilling and fracking bring radioactivity in solids and liquid wastewater to the surface, posing a risk to the environment and public health if not properly managed.

Radium and radon can cause cancer if ingested or inhaled. Radium causes leukemia and bone cancer. Radon, a gaseous decay product of radium, is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.

In 2009, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) found radium levels in Marcellus Shale wastewater that are thousands of times greater than that allowed in drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency, and up to 267 times the limit for safe discharge into the environment.

Exemption from a key federal regulation allows gas industry solid and liquid waste to pass as “non-hazardous.” However, it is becoming more widely appreciated that the waste can contain radioactive materials, in which case it should be regulated as "hazardous" waste and be managed accordingly.

Drilling and fracking waste in the form of sludge from Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale has triggered radiation alarms at municipal landfills. The sludge contains flowback fluids, frack sand and other fluids. Sludge must contain at least 20% solids according to the DEC, implying that it could contain as much as 80% flowback fluid and other fluids containing soluble radioactive material.

Liquid leachate from landfills is sent to wastewater treatment plants unequipped to monitor or remove radioactive materials, threatening drinking water sources.

Waste from drilling and fracking in Pennsylvania has been imported by 6 New York landfills  (see Map at bottom of page), including one in Niagara Falls that is not permitted to receive radioactive waste.

In West Virginia, tons of waste from Marcellus natural gas wells are going to municipal landfills, and radioactivity is leaching into surface water.

In the first four months of 2014, nine loads of Pennsylvania shale gas drilling waste were rejected by local landfills because of higher-than-normal radioactivity. Some of this radioactive drilling waste was shipped from Pennsylvania to West Virginia landfills that are not required to monitor radioactivity.

The gas industry has not identified methods to safely dispose the hazardous, radioactive waste and is shipping it to municipal landfills. It would be costly for industry to properly dispose the waste at a facility licensed to handle radioactive waste, but this is exactly what must be done to protect the environment and public health.

The industry is also failing to cleanup the hazardous, radioactive material in fracking wastewater. A peer-reviewed scientific paper reported radium levels of 200 times background in Pennsylvania’s Blacklick Creek sediments downstream of a specialized fracking wastewater treatment plant. A large portion of the radioactivity in the fracking wastewater appeared to have been removed before discharge into the waterway, but it is not clear where that radioactive material was disposed.

Avner Vengosh, the Duke University researcher who led the scientific study, said that "once you have a release of fracking fluid into the environment, you end up with a radioactive legacy." Contamination by radium, which has a half-life of 1602 years, will persist in the environment for many thousands of years.

Radioactive materials are present in a variety of gas-bearing formations, not just the Marcellus. Radioactivity can be present in the wastewater not only after high-volume fracking, but also following low-volume fracking, which is currently permitted in New York.

The DEC permits spreading fracking waste called 'brine' (salty wastewater) obtained from low-volume fracking wells and gas storage facilities on roads for de-icing, dust control and road stabilization as well as on land for dust control. Spreading applications of fracking brine have been approved for use in portions of at least 23 municipalities in 7 western New York counties: Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Genessee, Wyoming, and Seneca. Also, the New York State Department of Transportation Region 6 received approval to spread brine from natural gas storage on State roads in portions of Steuben, Allegany, Chemung, Schuyler, and Yates Counties.

Spreading of any fracking wastewater on roads or land should not be permitted without first testing for radioactive materials. If radium and radon are present, aerosols and dust containing radium could be inhaled along with radon gas. Radium in liquid runoff that makes its way into drinking water and fish could be ingested.

Radium and radon in waste from shale gas drilling and fracking pose a serious threat to the environment and public health. Cancers induced by ingestion or inhalation of these radioactive materials can take years to develop.

Regulation of radioactive waste in gas drilling is just as lax now as it was shown to be in investigative reports of 2011. The public should demand that the New York State Legislature pass laws to protect our water, land, air and health from the dire consequences of long-lived radioactive contamination.

NY State Senator Tkaczyk sponsored a common-sense bill to ban transportation of fracking waste from Pennsylvania and elsewhere into New York and ban disposal. However, the bill was defeated in the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee in a straight party-line vote (7 Nays by Republicans to 6 Ayes by Democrats).

A key bill sponsored by Senator Avella (S674), and the 'same as' bill sponsored by Assemblyman Sweeney (A1046), would close the loophole that allows fracking waste to be designated as "non-hazardous," despite the fact that it can be hazardous in ways described above. Fracking waste needs to be monitored. If it contains radioactive or toxic materials, it should be regulated as "hazardous" waste and be stored, transported, and disposed in ways that protect the environment and health. As stated in the bill, "If not treated properly, hazardous waste can, among other concerns, lead to contaminated air, drinking water, soil, and food."

TAKE ACTION: Contact your NY State Senator (Click Here) and Assembly Member (Click Here) and ask them to co-sponsor the bills (S674 and A1046) to protect our environment and health.

Public input is more important than ever given heavy campaign contributions to state legislators from the natural gas industry.

In the absence of New York State laws, the public has little choice but to call for municipal bans on fracking waste in order to protect our environment and health.

An abbreviated version of this article was published in The Buffalo News on May 29, 2014.

Sources of Pennsylvania drilling/fracking waste disposed at 6 New York landfills
Credits: Karen Edelstein, NYS Coordinator for FracTracker Alliance

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