Pennsylvania Gas Drillers Dumping Radioactive Waste in New York
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Obviously, Casella’s recent acceptance of Marcellus cuttings had nothing to do with those elevated levels in the past. But the new practice adds a new level of concern, Robinson said.
“Drill cuttings contain radioactive waste that will release radon gas, a carcinogen, and this will be disbursed into the atmosphere,” he said.
It may also find its way into drinking water supplies, Robinson added, because one engineering report commissioned by the county found that part of the landfill was “approximately 500 feet horizontally from the Chemung Valley Aquifer.”
Robinson is a member of a citizens group, Residents for the Preservation of Lowman and Chemung (RFPLC), that is challenging Casella’s bid to boost capacity to 180,000 tons per year.
RFPLC’s central claim is that Marcellus drilling wastes can’t be disposed of in a landfill that isn’t licensed to handle low-level radioactive waste. Such landfills are rare, and Chemung isn’t one of them.
The group’s argument echoes a formal statement sent to the DEC last December by the New York State Conference of Environmental Health Directors, which said in part:“Under no circumstances should drill cuttings be disposed outside licensed landfills without testing to show they are not a threat to human health or the environment.”
The DEC hasn’t conducted its own radiological testing of any wastes at the Chemung Landfill. Instead, it relied on submittals from Casella that appeared to show that neither drill cuttings nor soil contaminated with brine from Marcellus wells were dangerously radioactive.
Moreover, Lisa Schwartz, a lawyer for the DEC, argued that the level of radioactivity in the wastes sent to the Chemung Landfill wasn’t even a relevant legal question in the proceeding on Casella’s application to expand capacity. Her position reflected Casella’s stance on the issue.
In September, Edward Buhrmaster, an administrative law judge for the DEC, ruled that RFPLC’s challenge to the legality of dumping potentially radioactive wastes was irrelevant. He limited the Casella proceeding to the question of whether to allow the capacity to grow to 180,000 tons per year.
The citizens' group has appealed to the acting commissioner of the DEC.Under the law, Schwartz had argued, the Chemung Landfill could accept radioactive shale drill cuttings so long as they were not “processed or concentrated.” And she argued that the Chemung wastes were not. Ingraffea, among others, disagreed. In a pro bono memo filed in support of the RFPLC, the Cornell geologist stated that rock cuttings from drilling are typically carried to the surface by “drilling mud” that has been saturated with NORM. The rock cuttings are later separated from the mud in an industrial process known as “dewatering.”
Buhrmaster, the administrative law judge, struck Ingraffea’s testimony from the record along with comments made by two other scientific experts on behalf of RFPLC.
Buhrmaster concluded that the Marcellus shale cuttings were not processed and the landfill was legally entitled to make drill cuttings its entire waste stream -- up to its capacity.
Thomas S. West, an attorney for Casella, argued that if RFPLC’s central contention had any validity, which he denied, “it is a matter of statewide applicability that should not be determined in the context of a specific application for a particular facility.”
He said RFPLC could follow other procedural avenues to pursue its claim that radioactive cuttings had to go to a landfill licensed to handle them.
In addition to serving as Casella’s attorney, West has also served as a lobbyist to Chesapeake Energy, one of the companies that has dumped Marcellus brine-contaminated soil into the Chemung Landfill.