Pa. DEP to require landfills to test for radium from fracking waste

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The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is now requiring all landfills to test leachate for radioactive materials.

Specifically, landfills will have to test for radium, a radioactive material that naturally occurs underground and is commonly found in unconventional oil and gas waste.

Currently, landfills have to test leachate — the liquid that is generated as waste decomposes and rainfall filters through — for dozens of contaminants before it is treated on site or sent to wastewater treatment plants.

The issue of radium in landfills became public in 2019 after a Fayette County wastewater treatment plant sued a landfill to stop leachate being sent to the plant. The Belle Vernon Municipal Authority found the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill was sending high amounts of oil and gas waste containing salts and radium through its leachate, causing the wastewater treatment plant to fail water quality tests.

The DEP said it found no “significant differences in radium levels between landfills that accept oil and gas waste compared with those that do not” through several investigations and one large-scale study on Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material, or TENORM, associated with oil and gas production.

Additionally, samples taken of the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill showed radium levels below federal action levels. Still, the study found more evaluation of oil and gas waste in landfill leachate was needed.

“We take seriously our responsibility and duty as an environmental steward,” Gov. Tom Wolf said, in a statement. “This additional requirement will improve public confidence that public drinking water and our precious natural resources are being appropriately protected.”

There are about 30 landfills in the state certified to take unconventional oil and gas waste.

Reaction

Some Democratic lawmakers supported the move, but were concerned it wouldn’t be enough. State Rep. Sara Innamorato, of Allegheny County, and state Sen. Katie Muth, of Montgomery County, introduced companion legislation earlier this year that would close the loophole allowing oil and gas waste to be treated as “residual waste” and instead label it as “hazardous waste.”

“This move will only tell us what we already know, but it will give the Pennsylvania communities an opportunity to be informed of the harmful contaminants entering their backyards,” Innamorato said, in a statement. “While this move does add a level of transparency, it does nothing to prevent this or protect the public’s health.”

Dave Callahan, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, pointed to the DEP’s 2016 TENORM study as confirmation that the state’s current regulatory framework for handling oil and gas waste is effective and does not post a risk to workers or the public.

“Through comprehensive state requirements and industry best practices, natural gas producers and contractors conduct comprehensive NORM and TENORM management plans, surveys and reporting to state agencies, some of which include material sampling for radionuclide levels and monitoring truckloads upon leaving an unconventional wellsite and before entering a permitted landfill facility,” he said, in a statement.

The Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association, the state industry group that represents private sector companies that collect and dispose of solid waste, said in a statement that members are looking forward to working with the DEP to “assure the public that landfill leachate does not contain elevated levels of radium.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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