comments_image Comments

Pennsylvania Gas Drillers Dumping Radioactive Waste in New York

How did it happen? Provide the revenue-hungry county a rich payout, exploit a legal loophole, and presto, it's a done deal.

ELMIRA, N.Y. -- Trucks hauling rock cuttings from drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania regularly cross the New York State border these days to dump in the Chemung County Landfill seven miles east of Elmira.

The Marcellus formation is characterized by unusually high readings of naturally occurring radioactive material, or NORM, so most of the cuttings are probably radioactive. The Chemung Landfill, a former gravel pit, has never been licensed to handle low-level radioactive waste.

So how can the landfill’s private operators get clearance from the county and state environmental regulators to become a regional dump for radioactive drilling wastes?

The short answer: Provide the revenue-hungry county a rich payout, exploit a legal loophole, and presto, it’s a done deal.

The longer answer: Regulations haven’t kept pace with the recent widespread use of an invasive new drilling technology used to tap the Marcellus.

“There are many aspects of this new industrial activity that outpace existing regs. Radiological regulation is just one of them,” said Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University geology professor who has tracked the evolution of natural gas drilling for decades.

The latest variation of hydraulic fracturing now commonly used in Marcellus shale mining in Pennsylvania has never been allowed in New York State, but it is expected to be approved soon. Ingraffea said the New York Department of Environmental Conservation will need broader legal authority and a much deeper staff to cope with its considerable side effects.

But the DEC isn’t there yet, so there are legal gray areas that provide opportunities, and Casella Waste Systems is mining them.

In 2005, Casella entered into a 25-year, $90-million contract with Chemung County to operate its landfill, which had been taking in about 80,000 tons a year of garbage and municipal waste.

In April, the company and the county agreed to certain amendments to the deal and reaffirmed their goal of eventually increasing the landfill’s capacity to 417,000 tons per year.

“It’s been a great partnership,” said Larry Shilling, regional vice president for Casella, which has a pending application with the DEC for authority to boost capacity to 180,000 tons.

The DEC hasn’t raised major objections to the latest application. Nor did it object when it learned in January 2010 that for months the company had been accepting up to 2,000 tons of Pennsylvania drilling waste a week without first asking the agency for permission.

Casella also began diverting a major portion of its Chemung County municipal waste to other landfills to leave room for the Marcellus cuttings.

The DEC still isn’t sure when the new waste stream started because a lawyer for Casella said it was hard to pin down an exact date. While the DEC has taken it all in stride, several local residents who live near the landfill are quite agitated.

Dr. Earl Robinson, a pulmonologist who lives less than a mile away, noted that people who live near landfills often have higher rates of lung and bladder cancer than those who don’t.

Before Casella arrived, the Chemung Landfill had a history of violations involving industrial hazardous waste, so it may be partly to blame for the county’s problems with lung and bladder cancer.

From 2003-2007, the county’s bladder cancer incidence rate for males was 49.5 percent higher than the state average, while the lung cancer rate was 27.0 percent higher, according to the New York State Cancer Registry. In the 1999-2002 period, Chemung County had the highest bladder cancer rate in the state for males.