By Matthew Barakat
A memo released quietly by regulators earlier this year has carved a major loophole in West Virginia’s rules restricting the amount of waste that can be accepted by the state’s landfills, all with the intent to ease a burgeoning problem caused by the boom in gas drilling, environmentalists say.
The new rule specifies that landfills can accept unlimited amounts of solid waste from horizontal gas drilling, more commonly known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The rule carves out an exception to a decades-old state law that limited landfills’ intake to only 10,000 or 30,000 tons a month, depending on their classification.
In the industry, the drilling waste is called “drill cuttings,” a sludgy mix of dirt, water, sand and chemicals dredged up in the drilling process.
While much of the environmental concern over fracking has been focused on groundwater or air pollution, little attention has been paid to solid waste.
But the new rules in West Virginia, announced to landfill owners in a July 26 memo from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, are further proof of the boom in drilling on the Marcellus Shale, a resource-rich rock formation running under Pennsylvania, Ohio and parts of West Virginia that has become one of the most productive gas drilling fields in the world thanks to fracking technology.
West Virginia passed legislation in 2011 that requires the drill cuttings from fracking operations to be disposed of in a landfill, but the law made no provision for generating extra landfill capacity.
Tom Aluise, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection, said the new rules are the best way to accommodate two conflicting laws: one that strictly regulates the intake of solid waste and one that requires massive amounts of waste to be disposed of in landfills.
“This is not a carte blanche, unrestricted ‘exception’ to the tonnage limits,” Aluise said in an email. He noted that the DEP is requiring landfills to build a separate cell for the drill cuttings, or to seek a new permit to upgrade from a Class B to a Class A landfill, which is allowed to accept larger amounts of waste.
Still, environmentalists see the new rule as obliterating the state’s carefully crafted rules on trash intake. And they say it’s being done for an industry that has a dubious environmental record.
Norm Steenstra, a legislative coordinator with West Virginia Citizen Action Group, said fracking waste is a particular concern because of its radioactivity. Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey have shown that Marcellus Shale happens to have higher levels of naturally occurring radioactivity than other shale formations, though there is great dispute as to whether the levels are potentially harmful to humans.
“Radioactivity is the gift that keeps on giving,” Steenstra said.
Issues revolving around fracking affect primarily the northern part of the state, under which the Marcellus shale formation runs. Six landfills in the state currently accept drill cuttings, according to the DEP, concentrated in and around the northern Panhandle.
In Wetzel County, on the border with southwestern Pennsylvania, a landfill once authorized to accept only 9,999 tons of solid waste each month took in more than 40,000 tons in October, according to the county’s Solid Waste Authority. roughly 75 percent of the volume was from drill cutting.
Ryan Inch, director of engineering at the Wetzel landfill and three others owned by J.P. Mascaro and Sons in Audubon, Pa., said he believes the concerns about radiation are a nonissue. In Pennsylvania, where landfills are required to monitor all incoming trash for radiation, he said his landfills have accepted nearly 2,500 truckloads of drill cuttings, and that only one triggered radiation detectors, finding levels just twice the level of background radiation.
He said it’s far more common for the detectors to be set off due to byproducts from nuclear medicine: if a someone blows their nose after receiving a radioactive dye injection as part of a medical test, for instance.
Inch also disputes that the July memo from the state gives landfills any more leeway than they already had. He said West Virginia law has always made an exception for drill cuttings, and they are not defined as “solid waste” under state law, and said the July memo merely clarifies the status quo.
Bill Hughes – chairman of the Wetzel County Solid Waste Authority, which is opposing the landfill’s expansion to accommodate fracking waste – insists drill cuttings are regulated under the solid waste law. He said he is also concerned about radiation and that the state needs to independently investigate whether the drill cuttings pose a public health risk. Unlike Pennsylvania, West Virginia does not require testing waste for radioactivity.
“Landfills have never seen a ton of waste they don’t want to take,” Hughes said. “Our state just sort of trusts the garbage guys.”
Corky Demarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said he believes the complaints about landfills are just a backdoor way of trying to rein in fracking operations.
“They’ve tried water and air, and that hasn’t worked” for environmentalists, Demarco said. “Now they’re going after the drill cuttings.”