PA Plant Finally Agrees to Stop Dumping Radioactive and Toxic Materials from Fracking Wastewater into River

The Allegheny River provides Pittsburgh much of its drinking water...so what's the problem with dumping radioactive and toxic materials upstream?A Pennsylvania wastewater treatment plant alleged to have dumped toxic and radioactive materials into the Allegheny River has agreed to construct a new treatment facility, under a settlement announced with an environmental organization that had filed suit against the plant.

Back in 2011, Pennsylvania made national headlines because the state's treatment plants – including municipal sewage plants and industrial wastewater treatment plants like Waste Treatment Corporation – were accepting drilling and fracking wastewater laden with pollutants that they could not remove.

In July 2013, Clean Water Action alleged in a lawsuit that Waste Treatment Corp. of Warren, Pennsylvania, violated the federal Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, along with Pennsylvania's Clean Streams Law by continuing to discharge partially treated wastewater, carrying corrosive salts, heavy metals and radioactive materials into the river, which serves as the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people, including much of the city of Pittsburgh. 

Under the terms of the settlement, within eight months, Waste Treatment Corporation must install advanced treatment technology that will remove 99 percent of the contaminants in gas drilling wastewater.

Until those treatment methods are in place, Waste Treatment Corporation agreed to stop accepting wastewater from Marcellus shale wells, notorious for its high levels of radioactivity, and to cut the amount of wastewater it can accept from conventional gas wells by over a third.

“The settlement represents the first time an existing industrial treatment plant discharging gas drilling wastewater in Pennsylvania agreed to install effective treatment technology to protect local rivers,” Clean Water Action wrote in a press release.

In January 2013, state regulators discovered many pollutants associated with oil and gas drilling – including chlorides, bromides, strontium and magnesium –  immediately downstream of the plant’s discharge pipe. Upstream of the plant, those same contaminants were found at levels 1 percent or less than those downstream, or were not present at all.

A significant amount of radioactivity was found in the Allegheny riverbed. Sediments just downstream of the Waste Treatment Corporation’s discharge pipe contained over 50 picocuries per gram (pCi/g) of radium-226, state records show. To put that number in rough context, the levels in found in the Allegheny are 10 times those that EPA requires the surface soil at cleaned-up uranium mining sites to achieve.

“We think this is a settlement that is going to protect the Allegheny river,” said Myron Arnowitt, attorney for Clean Water Action, “we think it is going to greatly improve water quality.”

In November 2013, the Pennsylvania DEP proposed a settlement with Waste Treatment Corporation that would have required the plant to upgrade its treatment methods but allowed it to continue accepting wastewater from gas wells at the same rate for two additional years. But things seemed to grind to a half after those terms were made public.

“They proposed it, held a public comment period, and then never did anything else with it,” Mr. Arnowitt told DeSmog. “We wanted to make sure that we pursued our case because the state really was taking no action.”

The treatment method that Waste Treatment Corporation agreed to install relies on a distillation process, which will remove over 99 percent of the contaminants from gas drilling wastewater, Mr. Arnowitt said.

While this should bring a halt to the dumping of radioactive materials in the Allegheny, distillation brings its own headaches. The process produces clean water, but also solid waste – in which contaminants, including radioactive materials, may be concentrated.

Marcellus shale wastewater often carries relatively high levels of radioactive materials, like radium and uranium, that rise up from deep underground along with the shale gas that drillers target and the salty brines that were trapped along with the gas.

Pennsylvania regulators have a poor track record when it comes to controlling radioactive waste from the state's Marcellus shale drilling rush.

Although some of the solid waste from drill sites, like the shards of rock produced when a deep gas well is drilled (known in the industry as cuttings), can be laced with radium, uranium and other radioactive elements. In 2012 alone, over 15,000 tons of drill cuttings (more than 1,000 truckloads) tripped radiation alarms at Pennsylvania's landfills.

The levels of radioactivity generally are not high enough to harm anyone who simply stands nearby. But the drill cuttings from the Marcellus have been high enough to contaminate the water that runs off from landfills after rainstorms (called leachate).

Tests of leachate from one West Virginia landfill that accepted radioactive drill cuttings showed an average of 250 picocuries per liter (pci/l) of radioactive materials – and peak levels as high as 4,000 pci/l. To put that in perspective, the EPA's maximum contaminant level for drinking water is 15 pci/l.

So knowing where that waste is heading is important – if drill cuttings are illegally dumped, for example, the runoff from that site could be hazardous to people or animals that drank it, or could pollute streams that the runoff flows into.

Despite these known hazards, Pennsylvania regulators have failed to keep tabs on what happens to drill cuttings, an investigation by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently revealed.

It turns out that landfill companies have reported receiving far greater amounts of drilling waste than drillers reported generating.

Although state law requires drillers to report what they do with their waste to the state, an August 31 article by the Post-Gazette reported major discrepancies between what drillers reported to the state and what landfills reported receiving. One drilling company, EQT Corp., told the PA DEP that it had sent 21 tons of drill cuttings to landfills in 2013 – but the landfills' records showed they'd received 95,000 tons.

“That’s not a typo; it’s 4,500 times as much,” the Post-Gazette Editorial Board wrote in response to the findings. “Although the agency said it has been aware of the problem for 'a number of months,' it didn’t launch an investigation into EQT’s or Range’s reports until the Post-Gazette told the government what it had learned. After-the-fact inquiries by the agency are not reassuring, and neither is DEP’s assertion that the landfill numbers are accurate and those are the ones it uses in making policy decisions.”

For most industries, a federal law, the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act, requires that hazardous materials (haz-mat) be closely tracked and disposed of under tight controls. Shippers must maintain a manifest that tracks every ounce as haz-mat moves from cradle to grave.

But under an exception to that federal law, crafted in 1988, much of the oil and gas industry's toxic waste is not regulated by the EPA's haz-mat rules. Although agency officials discovered strong evidence that the waste was dangerous, pressure from the Reagan White House kept their conclusions out of the report that the agency ultimately delivered to Congress.

This means that tracking radioactive or hazardous waste from the shale drilling rush is left up to state regulators. And when they fail, the last recourse is for community groups to sue to enforce state laws – a costly and slow process that can only begin after things have already gone wrong.

When it to Waste Treatment Corporation, if the plant treats Marcellus shale wastewater after its new treatment facilities are installed, the solid waste left over from its distillation process will likely carry radium-226, a radioactive element that has a half-life of over 1,600 years.

Some have little faith that the DEP will keep tabs on that solid waste if it is hazardous.

“We'll definitely be following up,” Mr. Arnowitt said.

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