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Will Ohio Be Fracking’s Radioactive Dumping Ground?

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Part of the Series

This is the final installment of Truthout’s Fracking Road Trip series on the wide-reaching impacts of the fracking industry. To read the rest of the series, click here.

As hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has boomed in Ohio, Pennsylvania and nearby states in recent years, waste wells in Ohio have absorbed millions of barrels of liquid waste from oil-and-gas drilling operations in the region. Environmentalists and other observers are now calling Ohio a “dumping ground” for the fracking industry. Drillers now want to dump potentially radioactive waste mud, drill cuttings and frack sand from fracking operations in municipal landfills in the state, and environmentalists are up in arms.

“I am not against fracking, I am against stupid,” said Julie Weatherinton-Rice, a senior scientist at Bennett & Williams Environmental Consultants and an adjunct professor at Ohio State University. “I am seeing a lot a lot stupid and a lot of heads in the sand, and that’s what’s going to kill us.”

Fracking produces both solid and liquid wastes. The liquid wastes, known as “flowback” and “brine” in industry lingo, are laced with chemicals and can be radioactive from materials that occur naturally in the underground shale formations where oil and gas is extracted. In Ohio, brine is typically pumped into underground injection wells.

Fracking also produces solid wastes such as drill cuttings, rocks, mud, dirt and used frack sand. These wastes can also be contaminated with radioactive material, especially if they come from Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale formation at the heart of a fracking boom is known to contain considerable levels of radium-226 and other material. A truck carrying fracking waste was recently turned away from a landfill in Pennsylvania after setting off radiation alarms.

But the waste must to be disposed of somewhere, and Ohio’s 39 landfills may be the place.

Weatherinton-Rice told Truthout that she is already aware of solid fracking waste dumps at landfills in Ohio, and several reports indicate that some landfills are already accepting waste. But a proposal in the state legislature would codify regulations for solid waste dumping and open the fracking waste floodgates, according to environmental groups.

“If passed, this proposed law would put a big, trashed-out ‘Statue of Radioactive Liberty’ on Ohio’s eastern border,” said Jack Shaner, deputy director of the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC). “It would proclaim to the oil and gas industry: ‘Bring us your spent, cast-off, radioactive waste. It’s welcome in Ohio.’ “

The OEC has joined the Ohio Sierra Club and other groups in opposing the proposal, which was included in the state budget.

Radioactive fracking waste falls under two regulatory categories – Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material, or NORM, and Technologically-Enhanced Radioactive Material, or TENORM. NORM occurs naturally in the environment and is exempt from Ohio regulations, according to state documents. TENORM is NORM that has been concentrated by human industrial activity, and the waste can be regulated in Ohio. Drilling muds and other fracking waste could be considered TENORM.

Under the a proposal put forth by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) to Ohio lawmakers, the ODNR would require oil and gas drillers to test TENORM at the drilling site before sending it to a landfill. TENORM with less than 5 picocuries of radioactive material per gram could be sent to municipal landfills. The test results would be sent to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Health.

Any material classified as NORM, however, would not be required to be tested before going to landfills.

“If these were uranium tailings, there would be no way in the world that they could go into a regular landfill,” said Weatherinton-Rice, who is a scientific adviser to the OEC. “But because Ohio is choosing to call them what they are calling them, they are just putting the cuttings in without a question.”

Even more concerning than the NORM exemption, according to environmental groups, is a proposal to allow drillers to mix TENORM with a higher radioactive content than 5 picocuries per gram with other waste materials, such as soil or automobile salvage waste, until it meets the limit.

“Dilution is not the solution to pollution, especially when it comes to radioactive-laced trash that will continue to decay for thousands of years,” said Shaner.

The ODNR proposal would legally codify many existing regulations, which the agency calls “some of the most restrictive in the nation regarding TENORM.”

Environmentalists, however, are not convinced. Weatherinton-Rice said that the radium in fracking waste must be chemically bound, and mixing the waste with dirt or wastes may not keep rain from washing the radioactive waste into a landfill’s leachate collection system. Leachate is the liquid waste from landfills and is often sent to water treatment facilities that may not have the equipment to remove the radium before releasing it into the environment.

The waste is considered low-level radioactive waste, but Weatherinton-Rice is looking at the long-term impact the dumping could have on Ohio. Will landfills have the right equipment to test for low-level radiation buildup? Radioactive material takes thousands of years to break down; what will happen after the landfill closes and funding for maintenance runs out after the current 30-year limit?

“I’m just looking at this as I’m watching a disaster develop,” Weatherinton-Rice said. “How much can they take before the landfill reaches its tipping point, and the whole thing becomes radioactive, and now you have a radioactive landfill?”

The Ohio Senate is expected to vote on the dumping proposal in June. Environmental groups are hoping lawmakers reject the proposal and introduce tougher standards later this year.

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