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Study finds radioactive materials in Pa. waterways near treatment plants linked with fracking waste

The entrance to the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill in Rostraver, which accepts solid fracking waste and has sent what's called leachate -- liquid waste that comes out of the landfill when rainwater trickles through its piles of garbage -- to the Belle Vernon sewage treatment plant.
Reid Frazier
StateImpact Pennsylvania
The entrance to the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill in Rostraver, which accepts solid fracking waste and has sent what's called leachate -- liquid waste that comes out of the landfill when rainwater trickles through its piles of garbage -- to the Belle Vernon sewage treatment plant.

A new study found higher levels of radioactive materials in rivers and streams near municipal wastewater treatment plants that handled runoff from landfills that accept fracking waste from Pennsylvania.

Over 30 landfills in the state accept fracking waste like drill cuttings. The authors of the study followed what happens to the liquid waste from rainwater that trickles through these landfills. That liquid waste, called leachate, often goes to municipal wastewater facilities.

Sediment in waterways downstream of those facilities was higher in radium, a radioactive material found in the Marcellus shale, than sediment upstream of the plants.

“There were increases of two to four times the background level of radium in the sediment,” said Dan Bain, associate professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the study’s co-authors.

The study appeared in the journal “Ecological Indicators.”

While landfills must test leachate for radium and other markers of oil and gas waste, wastewater treatment plants don’t. He said the state should make the treatment plants test for markers of oil and gas waste, including radioactivity, but also salts and heavy metals associated with drilling wastes, to ensure they aren’t just passing pollutants into the environment.

“We need to have a safeguard so we can say, okay, you need to do something else with that leachate,” he said. “It’s not acceptable to discharge it to waterways.”

Why fracking waste isn’t considered hazardous

Fracking a well in the Marcellus or Utica shale creates thousands of tons of drill cuttings — basically, dirt and rocks excavated to build the well. Those cuttings are high in naturally occurring radioactive materials. A 2011 analysis by federal scientists found liquid waste from Marcellus wells had concentrations of radium roughly 40 times what the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission classifies as “hazardous” or “radioactive” waste.

But a loophole in federal law means oil and gas waste is not considered hazardous and can be disposed of at a variety of landfills, though some states have tighter requirements.

New York state, for instance, recently tightened its requirements for fracking waste by classifying it as hazardous waste, thereby limiting the types of facilities that can accept it.

Study co-author John Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University, said this waste could accrue over time in landfills, causing problems down the road.

“They are turning these sanitary landfills into toxic waste dumps that are going to need remediation in the future because of the build-up of this material,” Stolz said.

One landfill in Westmoreland County, which has been fined by the state for sending polluted leachate to a nearby sewage treatment plant, had high levels of pollutants commonly found in oil and gas waste.

When we analyzed the leachate from that landfill, it looks like oil and gas waste,” Stolz said. “It has all the chemistry and characteristics, including that it is radioactive, and [it] was being shipped down to the local wastewater treatment plant.”

The paper also found large data gaps in oil and gas waste reports in Pennsylvania and surrounding states. The researchers could not find reports for more than 800,000 tons of fracking waste sent to landfills in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio.

“Reporting of [oil and gas] waste receipt in landfill reports was inconsistent and incomplete,” the study found. This could make it difficult to assess environmental impacts, Stolz said.

“It’s a problem because you really need to know how much of this stuff is being taken,” Stolz said. “If there’s more and more of this waste…it’s going to be around for a long time.”

Study is ‘consistent with other literature’

Nicole Deziel, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study, said its findings were “consistent with other literature” on the impacts of fracking, such as a recent Harvard study funded by the EPA that found radioactivity of ambient particles was higher downwind of unconventional oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and her own study, funded by the EPA and National Institutes of Health, which found Pennsylvania children living near fracking sites at birth were two to three times more likely to be diagnosed at ages 2-7 with leukemia than those who did not live near oil and gas activity.

“The release of liquid and solid wastes that contain radioactive material may pose risks to public health from oil and gas, but the fate [in the environment] of these radioactive contaminants and their impact on human exposure and health is not well-understood,” Deziel said.

The recent study was funded by The Heinz Endowments and the Park and Colcom foundations, which also fund The Allegheny Front. The Allegheny Front receives support from Duquesne University.

The industry responds

The oil and gas industry says it maintains strong radiation protocols with its waste and references a 2016 Pennsylvania DEP study that found “little or limited potential for radiation exposure to workers or the public” from fracking operations. But in 2021, the agency determined “additional evaluation of the potential for oil and gas-derived waste to radiologically impact landfill leachate was necessary.”

Tracy Pawelski, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association, which represents the state’s landfills, said in an email that the facilities “carefully track every load of waste that is disposed of at their facility, including every load of oil and gas waste received, all of which are subject to a rigorous pre-acceptance review and approval process.”

Pawelski said the landfills also have safeguards to prevent the release of radioactive materials into the environment. After a landfill is full, it is covered with a soil cap to prevent the leaching of the materials, and there are limits to what the landfills are permitted to accept.

“Pennsylvania landfills have long been equipped with sophisticated radiation detection equipment that monitors every load of waste entering the facility,” Pawelski said. “Any load with unacceptable radiation levels, regardless of its source, are managed pursuant to radiation waste management plans approved by the DEP.”

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth’s energy economy.