Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

4 States Struggling to Manage Radioactive Fracking Waste

Energy

By Jie Jenny Zou, Ohio Valley ReSource

The Marcellus Shale has transformed the Appalachian Basin into an energy juggernaut. Even amid a recent drilling slowdown, regional daily production averages enough natural gas to power more than 200,000 U.S. homes for a year.

Springville, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: J. Henry Fair © / Flights provided by LightHawk

But the rise of hydraulic fracturing over the past decade has created another boom: tons of radioactive materials experts call an “orphan" waste stream. No federal agency fully regulates oil and gas drilling byproducts—which include brine, sludge, rock and soiled equipment—leaving tracking and handling to states that may be reluctant to alienate energy interests.

“Nobody can say how much of any type of waste is being produced, what it is and where it's ending up," said Nadia Steinzor of the environmental group Earthworks, who co-wrote a report on shale waste. [Earthworks has received funding from The Heinz Endowments, as has the Center for Public Integrity.]

The group is among several suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate drilling waste under a federal system that tracks hazardous materials from creation to final disposal or “cradle to grave." The EPA declined to comment on the lawsuit but is scheduled to file a response in court by early July.

Geologists have long known soil and rock contain naturally occurring radioactive materials that can become concentrated through activities like fracking, in which sand and chemicals are pumped thousands of feet underground to release oil and gas from tight rock. But concerns about fracking largely have focused on injection wells and seismic activity, with less attention paid to “hot" waste that arrives at landfills and sets off radiation alarms.

An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity shows that states are struggling to keep pace with this waste stream, relying largely on industry to self-report and self-regulate. States have also been slow to assess and curb risks from exposure to the waste, which can remain radioactive for millennia. Excessive radiation exposure can increase cancer risks; radon gas, for example, has been tied to lung cancer.

The four states in the Marcellus are taking different approaches to the problem; none has it under control. Pennsylvania has increasingly restricted disposal of drilling waste, while West Virginia allows some landfills to take unlimited amounts. Ohio has yet to formalize waste rules, despite starting the process in 2013. New York, which banned fracking, accepts drilling waste with little oversight.

Inconsistencies have raised concerns among regulators and activists that waste is being “shopped around" by companies seeking the path of least resistance or unsafely reused. In March, Kentucky's attorney general opened an investigation into two landfills he alleged illegally accepted radioactive drilling waste from West Virginia. A separate investigation is ongoing at the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, where officials exchanged emails about whether landfill workers and schoolchildren might have been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

Bill Kennedy, a radiation expert at the consulting firm Dade Moeller, called radioactive drilling waste “virtually unregulated" and said consistent standards are needed to “protect workers, protect the general public, protect the environment."

Kennedy co-chairs a committee working with regulators and industry to develop guidelines and recommendations for states. “You can't rely on industry to go it alone and self-regulate," he said.

While radiation emitted from fracking waste may pale in comparison to that from nuclear power plant waste, Steinzor said regulators don't know the cumulative impacts of landfilling the loads over time. “There's been such a push to expand the industry and to drill as much as possible," she said. “No one has had the desire or political will to slow the industry down long enough to figure out what the risks truly are."

This piece was produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

How Radioactive Fracking Waste Wound Up Near Homes and Schools

Methane Emissions From Onshore Oil and Gas Equivalent to 14 Coal Plants Powered for One Year

Help Put an End to Coal Mining on Public Lands

EPA Bans Fracking Wastewater from Sewage Treatment Plants

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Women walk from Santa Monica beach after a social media workout on the sand on May 12, 2020 in Santa Monica, California. Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Independence Day weekend is a busy time for coastal communities as people flock to the beaches to soak up the sun during the summer holiday. This year is different. Some of the country's most popular beach destinations in Florida and California have decided to close their beaches to stop the surge in coronavirus cases.

Read More Show Less
Daily fireworks in many U.S. cities in recent weeks have no doubt been interfering with the sleep and peace of mind of thousands of veterans and others who suffer from PTSD. Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Arash Javanbakht

For some combat veterans, the Fourth of July is not a time to celebrate the independence of the country they love. Instead, the holiday is a terrifying ordeal. That's because the noise of fireworks – loud, sudden, and reminiscent of war – rocks their nervous system. Daily fireworks in many U.S. cities in recent weeks have no doubt been interfering with the sleep and peace of mind of thousands of veterans.

Read More Show Less
Koala populations across parts of Australia are on track to become extinct before 2050 unless "urgent government intervention" occurs. Mathias Appel / Flickr

Koala populations across parts of Australia are on track to become extinct before 2050 unless "urgent government intervention" occurs, warns a year-long inquiry into Australia's "most loved animal." The report published by the Parliament of New South Wales (NSW) paints a "stark and depressing snapshot" of koalas in Australia's southeastern state.

Read More Show Less
NASA is advancing tools like this supercomputer model that created this simulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to better understand what will happen to Earth's climate if the land and ocean can no longer absorb nearly half of all climate-warming CO2 emissions. NASA/GSFC

By Jeff Berardelli

For the past year, some of the most up-to-date computer models from the world's top climate modeling groups have been "running hot" – projecting that global warming may be even more extreme than earlier thought. Data from some of the model runs has been confounding scientists because it challenges decades of consistent projections.

Read More Show Less
A child stands in what is left of his house in Utuado, Puerto Rico, which was almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Maria, on Oct. 12, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Jon-Paul Rios. Flickr, CC by 2.0
By Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope

To hear many journalists tell it, the spring of 2020 has brought a series of extraordinary revelations. Look at what the nation has learned: That our health-care system was not remotely up to the challenge of a deadly pandemic. That our economic safety net was largely nonexistent. That our vulnerability to disease and death was directly tied to our race and where we live. That our political leadership sowed misinformation that left people dead. That systemic racism and the killing of Black people by police is undiminished, despite decades of protest and so many Black lives lost.
Read More Show Less
President Trump's claim last September that Hurricane Dorian was headed for Alabama's gulf coast was quickly refuted by employees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). An independent investigation found that NOAA's chief violated the agency's ethics when he backed Trump's warning and doctored map that used a Sharpie to alter the storm's path, as EcoWatch reported.
Read More Show Less

Trending

African bush elephants in the Makgadikgadi Pans Game Reserve in Botswana on Nov. 22, 2016. Michael Jansen / Flickr

More than 350 elephants have died in Botswana since May, and no one knows why.

Read More Show Less