By Dan Heyman
As West Virginia revises its emergency landfill rules, concerns are rising about the tons of low-level radioactive waste from Marcellus drilling going into the state’s dumps. One Marcellus well can produce 500 tons of drill cuttings, including naturally occurring radioactive waste, amounts that threaten to overwhelm the handful of the state’s landfills that accept it.
In the last legislative session, lawmakers told the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to better monitor and regulate the dumping. But Bill Hughes, chair, Wetzel County Solid Waste Authority, says the rules as written are not enough. “This is not spent fuel rods from a nuclear reactor; this is low-level radioactive waste,” says Hughes. “But ‘low-level’ multiplied by 250,000 tons in one landfill, in one year.”
The DEP wants the drill cuttings to go into separate, walled-off sections of the landfills. It also has called for more radiation monitoring, testing of the water leeching from landfills, and testing the composition of some horizontal drill cuttings. Those rules are now set to go into effect.
Hughes doesn’t believe the testing and monitoring is thorough enough, especially since the waste could affect drinking water. He says the rules don’t properly deal with “hot” or radioactive loads that set off the alarms, or with situations where the radioactivity can concentrate – in filters used at the well sites, or sediment that collects at water treatment plants.
Given that one of the elements in the cuttings has a half-life of 1,500 years, Hughes observes, the state should be a lot more careful. “We must be a little smarter and a lot more prudent,” he says. “What’s in it? How much is in it? What’s the long-term concern for our children and great-grandchildren?”
The DEP says the drill cuttings have to go to landfills, because that’s where the law says they should go, and that it’s the best plan for handling the waste without putting too great a burden on the drilling industry. Hughes points out that four West Virginia landfills took in 600,000 tons of drill cuttings in two years, noting that it’s a far greater volume than they would otherwise be allowed to accept. In his view, the state is fumbling around in the dark on the issue of the long-term radioactivity – but if careless, it could end up glowing in the dark.