New Castle News

Closer Look

March 26, 2014

DEP: Drillers extract thousands of tons of hot rocks

HARRISBURG — Environmental watchdogs say a system for tracking radioactive material unearthed during gas drilling depends too much on the industry’s self-policing, making it impossible to judge how much waste is generated or how dangerous it might be.

Their concern centers on cuttings — the rock unearthed during the drilling process.

Deepest rocks are sometimes radioactive. They may become more volatile when exposed to chemicals used during fracking, the popular process for releasing underground reservoirs of natural gas, said Nadia Steinzor, program coordinator for the Oil and Gas Accountability Project of the nonprofit group Earthworks.

During 2012, an estimated 4,175 tons of cuttings were radioactive, said Morgan Wagner, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman. The DEP does not have an estimate for how much radioactive material was unearthed last year, Wagner said.

Environmentalists said the state’s estimates — when they exist — are difficult to verify.

“We don’t know the scope of the problem,” said Adam Garber, field director for PennEnvironment. “… It’s only (going) to get worse.”

Responding to such concerns, the DEP has launched a $1 million study to measure where radioactive materials are turning up and how they are handled, Wagner said. As of the end of last year, researchers had visited 114 locations across the state, and collected close to 1,000 samples. The DEP is expected to release their findings this summer.

Mark Pedersen, president of the Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association, which represents haulers and landfill operators, said those who manage waste from the drilling operations believe there are sufficient checks in place.

“There are two to three sets of eyes on everything,” Pedersen said.

Environmentalists said a handful of episodes have heightened concerns about drilling waste.

Two years ago, state regulators identified “several containers” of waste that were so radioactive, state officials required them to be moved out of state, Wagner said. Those 308 tons of waste were ultimately sent to a facility for radioactive waste disposal in Idaho. Wagner said the problem came to light when the drilling company submitted paperwork seeking to move the waste to a landfill, which is the most common way that radioactive waste is identified.

Then, last April, a Westmoreland County landfill rejected a load of drilling waste when it triggered a radiation alarm. That load also was reportedly shipped to Idaho.

Earlier this month, regulators in North Dakota reported finding black trash bags stuffed with radioactive “drilling socks” — filters used to strain liquid during the drilling process. The Pennsylvania DEP is studying the use and disposal of the same type of filters as part of its study.

A DEP website that tracks the disposal of Marcellus waste includes no reference to either the 2012 or 2013 Idaho shipments. Steinzor said that data gap is typical because the state’s system relies on self-reporting by gas drillers.

Data provided by drilling companies show a staggering amount of waste.

Pennsylvania landfills last year accepted 785,000 tons of drill cuttings. Another 81,000 tons were shipped across the border into New York.

Residents there must confront the irony that their state has a moratorium on fracking due its perceived environmental threat, but New York still accepts waste from drilling in Pennsylvania, said Gary Alexander. An attorney, Alexander represents residents who’ve been fighting to stop the Chemung County Landfill from taking Pennsylvania’s drilling waste.

Alexander estimated that a third of the waste going into the Chemung landfill comes from drilling in Pennsylvania. The DEP database shows the landfill accepted 58,000 tons of drill cuttings last year.

Landfill operators have an incentive to accept that waste, Alexander said. Cuttings are four times heavier than normal garbage, and landfills charge by weight.

That incentive also raises questions about how vigilant landfill operators are when it comes to identifying waste they should refuse, he said.

It’s a concern shared by residents throughout Pennsylvania. With such a large volume of waste material in the state, Steinzor said, there is concern that some of it might be mishandled along the way.

Pedersen said drilling and gas companies in Pennsylvania are required to determine whether their waste is radioactive. They send paperwork to DEP that describes the waste and indicates where it’s being sent, he said. Once state regulators give their blessing, the waste can proceed to a landfill.

Wagner said drillers have 90 days to move their waste off-site. All landfills have radiation alarms, she added.

When those are triggered — which happened 995 times in 2012, according to the DEP — landfill workers use handheld devices to get a better measure of the radiation, Pedersen said. But landfills don’t have to reject waste just because an alarm goes off, he said.

“The alarms are set artificially low,” he said, adding that landfills can accept waste as long as DEP determines the radiation levels not to be dangerous.

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Closer Look
  • well.jpg Lawyers to address fracking

    Lawyers will address public concerns about oil and gas regulations and other topics at a program next month. Oday Salim and Megan Lovett of Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services in Pittsburgh and attorney Michael Oliverio of Lynch Weis in Cranberry Township are to present the program.

    August 1, 2014 1 Photo

  • Yauger.jpg Yauger enters guilty plea in federal court

    The former executive director of the local intermediate unit has entered a guilty plea in federal court.

     

    July 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • Lottery.jpg Lottery officials: Seniors should get smaller payout

    State lottery officials say less means more for seniors. The lottery took in $3.8 billion in sales last year and will give more than $1 billion of it — or 28.5 percent — to programs for senior citizens.

    July 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • phone.jpg Attorney general warns of phone scams

    Assorted scams in the commonwealth have prompted a warning from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane said several scams have been reported to the Bureau of Consumer Protection in recent weeks.

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • disability.jpg Disabilities group unveils new icon

    Disability Options Network is joining forces with the Accessible Icon Project. Officials of the community organization, located at 1929 E. Washington St., said its new icon will replace the current international symbol for accessibility.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • well.jpg Auditor: State doesn’t have enough inspectors to monitor wells

    The state’s 83 well inspectors face a daunting enough challenge keeping tabs on 120,000 active oil and gas wells that have been drilled over the last century.

     

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • vote.jpg Independent hopefuls may widen gubernatorial field

    Just when Pennsylvania voters were getting used to the idea of a gubernatorial election showdown between Republican incumbent Tom Corbett and Democratic challenger Tom Wolf, other hopefuls may soon be joining the fray.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • manna.jpg John K. Manna: Measuring the money

    Should we even bother to have an election in November? By some accounts, maybe the results of some contests are already in.

    July 26, 2014 1 Photo

  • shooting.jpg Man injured in city shooting

    A man was flown to a Pittsburgh hospital Thursday morning following a shooting on West Lincoln Avenue.

     

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • police.jpg Police: Man pulls gun on construction workers

    Construction workers in Neshannock Township flagged down police Thursday claiming a business owner had pulled a gun on them.

     

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

House Ads
Seasonal Content
Section Teases
Must Read
Continuous Super Bowl Coverage