Rejected radioactive waste remains in Greene

July 8, 2013
Multiple containers housing radioactive drilling waste were returned to this Morgan Township site in November. - Tara Kinsell / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

On April 19, a Rice Energy Inc. truck, originating from the Thunder II well pad in Greene County, set off the radioactivity alarms at a disposal site in Yukon. The truck was quarantined on site and tested. It was determined the drill cuttings inside contained Radium 226 at a level of 96 microrem (mrem) above background. The standard for Pennsylvania is 10 mrem above background.

John Poister, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said 96 mrem is in the middle area, making it too high for acceptance at a landfill in the state.

On May 6, Poister said the DEP was “certain” the drill cuttings were disposed of properly. This resulted in several inquiries from Ohio and New York residents who wanted to know if the waste was shipped to their states.

Poister recently confirmed the container had, in fact, never left Pennsylvania. It was returned to the Thunder II well pad where it remains.

As it turned out, this was just one of many loads that have triggered the radiation monitoring alarms at landfills in the state that were returned to the originating well site.

With loads being rejected at a steady rate, well pads across the state are becoming temporary storage facilities until dump sites capable of accepting these levels are found.

“We are certainly aware it is a problem. In terms of what is out there we don’t know. We don’t have a registry of it (rejected waste from well sites),” Poister said.

In 2012 there were 1,325 total incidents of disposal facilities in the commonwealth reporting various loads above the 10 mrem limit, according to Poister.

“That includes everything, not just oil and gas. Medical waste, medical testing and other sources of radiation that might be disposed of are in that number,” Poister said.

As of May, the number was already at 230 for the first quarter of 2013, he noted.

The rejected waste is referred to as TENORM, an acronym for Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material. It occurs when the levels of radioactivity or potential for human exposure are increased by human activities.

Drilling for gas and oil is one such activity.

Companies have limited options as to how radioactive waste from drilling can be disposed of if they are operating in Pennsylvania.

“The containers can be stored for up to a year at the well site after it has been rejected at a landfill,” Poister said. During that time, the company producing the TENORM is supposed to seek a landfill that is permitted to accept the higher levels.

The Max Environmental Technologies disposal site that turned away the Rice Energy Truck in April has now applied for a special permit that would allow it to take higher levels of radiation, according to Poister.

“We are quite aware it is a problem. Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation with radiation monitors at every landfill,” Poister said. “What do we do with it and where do we take it? Our regulations only extend to the borders of Pennsylvania. We have 101 landfills in the state. Not all take all types of waste.”

Poister said most of those landfills can handle up to 10 microcurries above background but a few are permitted to accept more. Taking it to other states isn’t necessarily the best answer, Poister said.

“It isn’t like we are taking nuclear fuel rods. It is mostly medical waste and low level drill cuttings coming up from deep digs, not really high level radiation,” Poister said. “The problem lately is making sure it doesn’t leach into the ground so it doesn’t become a larger problem. Obviously you don’t want that stuff sitting on site. It is supposed to be safely disposed of.”

He said there are stringent guidelines that must be followed when dealing with TENORM.

Companies face fines when they are out of compliance. However, looking at fines for various infractions, including some for failure to properly dispose of or clean up waste that threatened polluting waters of the commonwealth, resulted in fines of just a few thousand dollars. It seems like a drop in the bucket for wells that are raking in millions.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) estimates the United States may produce more than 1 billion tons of TENORM annually from all sources. Large quantities of TENORM are currently undisposed of with much of it existing in abandoned mine sites across the country, according to the NRC.

Poister said TENORM is part of the reason the DEP launched a study in January to look at naturally occurring levels of radioactivity in materials associated with oil and gas development.

Flowback waters, treatment solids, drill cuttings, transportation issues, storage and disposal of drilling wastes and levels of radon in natural gas are being looked at, along with the potential of exposure to industry employees and the public.

Tara Kinsell started her career in journalism with the National Geographic Insider Magazine and the Gaithersburg Gazette Newspaper in Montgomery County, Md. Tara has written and photographed sports, features and news stories for the Herald Standard, Greene County Messenger and Albert Gallatin Weekly. She holds degrees in journalism and graphic design from Waynesburg College, now Waynesburg University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, respectively.

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