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4 States Struggling to Manage Radioactive Fracking Waste

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4 States Struggling to Manage Radioactive Fracking Waste

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.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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