Whenever an oil or gas well is drilled, the material that comes out of the well can include rocks and drilling mud and brine and water. New York and the other states in the Marcellus region allow that waste, which comes up before a well is fracked, into municipal landfills.
A study by the US Geological Survey found that the radioactivity associated with the Marcellus Shale is three times higher than in other layers.
The element of greatest concern is radium, particularly radium-226. It has a half-life of more than 5,000 years. So, basically, once it’s in the environment, it’s there forever.
Duke University professor Avner Vengosh co-authored a 2013 study that found elevated radium levels near treatment plants in Pennsylvania that handled Marcellus wastewater.
“It’s important to mention that the level of radioactivity that we found in the streams was higher than the level that’s required for radioactive waste disposal sites, according to U.S. law.”
The concern is that once the radium gets into streams and rivers, it will make its way into the human body.
“Once it’s arriving to the human body, radium is very similar to calcium and as a result it would accumulate in the bone and start radiation, which would lead to bone cancer.”
Since contaminants started showing up in streams, Pennsylvania has tightened restrictions on the disposal of wastewater. But a largely unaddressed potential problem remains: the solid waste that’s the original source of the radioactive materials.
“Those are drill cuttings right there…”
At a landfill in Chemung County, New York, a dump truck has just dropped off a load of cuttings from a well a few miles down the road in Northeastern Pennsylvania. It looks like a pile of wet black sand, wrapped in the plastic liner.
All this material comes up before a well is fracked. It doesn’t include any of the water or chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.
Larry Shilling is a vice president with Casella, which operates this landfill. Shilling says they’ve never had a load of cuttings that exceeded acceptable levels of radiation enter the site.
Every truck passes through a radiation detector on its way into the landfill.
“See this thing that says Ludlum? So they pull up, they stop, and as they drive onto the scales it registers what radioactivity might be in it.”
The readings go into a small monitor inside the office and if there’s a high level detected, an alarm goes off.
Shilling says the alarm has gone off three times since it was installed in 2010, each time because of the driver and not the load. But not everyone is convinced that Casella is taking sufficient precautions.
Gary Abraham is an environmental lawyer in Western New York working to block Casella from expanding their landfills. Abraham says there’s no way radioactive materials aren’t ending up in there. He points to radiation measurements of the Marcellus Shale by regulators in New York.
“And those readings show that the radioactivity of the brine is as high as 15,000 pico curies per liter. The background radiation at the surface of the earth in New York is about one pico curie per liter.”
Abraham and Shilling see eye-to-eye on very little.
The difference: one, Abraham, is looking at the brine associated with the Marcellus Shale, and raising the red flag. The other, Shilling, is just focused on the rock, and giving the green light.
Avner Vengosh of Duke says the question is how well the contaminants in the landfill are blocked from getting into the environment.
“And what’s happening is that every contaminant that’s being disposed into landfills, the solids, are subject to numerous attacks of acids and different chemicals, different solutions within the landfill. And they’re creating what we call leachate.”
“We are at the Chemung County sewer district on Lake Street in Elmira, and this is a 12 million gallon per day trickling filler plant.”
When the leachate from the Chemung County landfill leaves, it goes to this wastewater treatment plant.
Dan McGovern is the plant’s chief operator. McGovern says they’re only certified to do basic tests for solids, pH levels, dissolved oxygen and salts.
“So the concern about that landfill, about the leachate coming from that landfill is that there might be some radioactive materials. Is there any way that could show up here?”
“No,” says McGovern.
“Is that something they would have to test for?”
“They would actually have to send it out to a very sophisticated lab to test it.”
Casella does a quarterly radiation test of its leachate. Results showed low levels of radium-226, but with each testing, there was a small increase.
In New York, Marcellus Shale drill cuttings are exempted from the regulations governing low-level radioactive waste. If they weren’t, landfills couldn’t take them. And the leachate would have to go to specialized treatment plants. For now, there are no plans to change how drill cuttings are handled in New York.