In the past year, there has been a loophole carved in West Virginia’s rules concerning the amount of solid waste that can be accepted by our state’s landfills. Without notice to legislators or solid waste authorities, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection has declared that fracking waste does not meet the definition of solid waste. Meaning, Marcellus waste is now exempt from the rules governing the amount of tonnage that can be placed in a municipal landfill.
Fracking waste is often called “drill cuttings” in the gas industry. Drill cuttings are a mix of sludgy dirt, water, sand and fracking slurries dredged up in the drilling process. The waste also includes radioactive materials that are naturally occurring underground and in very high amounts in the Marcellus Shale compared to the rest of the world. In fact, meters are used to measure the levels of radioactivity during the hydro-fracturing process to reveal when the drill has punctured into the Marcellus shelf. Spikes in the readings indicate that they have hit pay dirt. Radium 226 would be one of the carcinogenic elements returned to the surface in the portion of drill cutting that gushes from the top of the well. Radium 226 travels by attaching itself to the H2O molecules, or what the rest of us like to call, water.
The only municipal landfill in the first eight counties beginning with Jefferson and walking west is the North Mountain Landfill in Hedgesville in Berkeley County. It’s the only game in town until you hit Tucker County. With nine of the eighteen landfills in West Virginia already accepting Marcellus drill cuttings, Berkeley County Solid Waste Authority Chair, Clint Hogbin feels it is only a matter of time before it becomes economically feasible to ship this waste to Hedgesville.
This is a large concern for a number of reasons. Landfills in West Virginia are required to be lined with a 1/4 inch piece of plastic placed on top of several feet of compacted clay. Testing done from agencies and industries from the EPA, industrial waste companies and municipal waste companies have consistently shown that this plastic will fail — it is just a matter of time.
This trend is especially noteworthy for the Eastern Panhandle because it just so happens the Hedgesville landfill sits on top of three geological fault lines. In other words, seepage from the landfill has an open doorway to the aquifer beneath and to our groundwater. The issue is further complicated by the karst geology of the Eastern Panhandle, which is best characterized as Swiss cheese. Our groundwater doesn’t stop at the county lines.
What appears in Berkeley’s aquifers will eventually be visible in Jefferson County’s groundwater. We are all downstream folks! I can’t seem to say that enough.
To worsen matters, it is completely legal, and the current practice to allow so many million gallons per year of leachate to be piped to the Berkeley County public sewage service to be treated and placed right into the Opequon Creek. Leachate is the fluid at the bottom of the landfill that contains all the water, liquids and chemicals that have collected after traveling through the pile of waste. Six million gallons of leachate a year are currently piped to wastewater treatment plants in Berkeley County.
With a husband that has constructed wastewater treatment plants along the East Coast, I can tell you there is no process in even the most up-to-date WWTPs to remove Radium 226, drilling slurries or any of the other carcinogenic elements found in fracking wastewater. Many of the chemicals used in fracking slurries are not even recognized by our federal government, nor is there a process to remove them. So once they are in the water, they stay in the water. That Radium 226 will just hitch a ride on a water molecule through the treatment process and head on down to the Opequon. Makes you want to go tubing doesn’t it?
Currently in the tri-state area, only Pennsylvania screens this waste for radiation when it arrives at the landfill. Two of the eighteen landfills in West Virginia have this equipment to screen for high levels of radiation. Sensors were initially installed to catch the waste created by tests involving nuclear medicine. It is not required in West Virginia for Marcellus Shale waste, so what are the chances any of it will be screened? The North Mountain landfill is not one of the two landfills in the state with this equipment.
If you would like to spend a depressing afternoon at your computer just do a Google search on the effects of injecting fracking waste into the ground.
Joe Hankins, director of the Freshwater Institute, points that there are a few companies that pride themselves in safe disposal of drill and pipeline cuttings. Clean Earth of Williamsport, Pa., claims to reduce the waste that needs to go into landfills by reusing 98 percent of it. Its website, cleanearthinc.com claims, “Waste solvents are transformed into fuel products, and treated soils are recycled into usable construction fill material for land reclamation, brownfield development and landfill capping and cover.” Clean Earth’s processes to recycle the contaminated soil includes thermal desorption, bioremediation, chemical fixation, dredge processing and physical treatment. I would need another column to explain all of those to you, but let’s just say they look pretty pricey. When you consider the cost of fuel and processing, the drive to Hedgesville from the Northern Panhandle looks very inviting.
Hankins doesn’t expect to see a proactive approach from state agencies. He does feel that it is likely the energy development and support services sector see this issue and would likely welcome a comprehensive answer. He wrote: “It is in our collective best interest to recognize and resolve these shale energy development legacy problems up front. We already know what happens when we don’t.” I couldn’t agree more.
Berkeley County’s Hedgesville landfill has 35 years of space left in it. If we add the amount of fracking waste that has hit other landfills in the state that life expectancy will decrease to 10 years. So where will the next landfill go in the Panhandle when North Mountain is filled to capacity? I’ll let you formulate your best guess on that one — no matter the location it won’t be a good one for our water.
So what can we do? Why have I raised your awareness to this lurking threat to clean water in the Panhandle? Because numbers matter, voters matter and your voice, matters. Contact your local state Senators, talk to your representatives. Take a moment to give Sens. John Unger and Herb Snyder an email or a phone call to explain your concern. The best option in my opinion would be to force the gas industry to construct their own landfills designed and engineered with the best minds and materials to contain this toxic sludge — no quarter inch plastic. Until the companies can catch up, place caps back on the municipal dumps for accepting this waste. As specified by a DEP memo this year, fracking waste needs to be kept in a separate “cells” within the landfill. How about lining these cells with a wall of concrete thick enough to insure the safety of the groundwater? Hold the gas companies accountable for their waste. Maybe it’s time they consider shipping their waste to companies that can handle this level of contamination. Put the burden on the industry. They are making the money; they should be forced to pay for the disposal of their toxic waste. Why should another industry be allowed to cash in on the cash dollars and the health of West Virginians?
For those that think this is a partisan issue; I argue this is a human issue. This is about making sure our grandchildren can enjoy the afternoon kayaking the Shenandoah or Potomac rivers without the fear of breathing or otherwise ingesting the carcinogen that will rob them of their lives. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the future of the Mountain State to be proactive on this issue. Let’s not wait until the damage is done. Water is recycled every day by Mother Nature, but she doesn’t have a filter for this manmade disaster in the making. Dilution is not the solution to this particular brand of pollution, friends.
— Ronda Lehman is the Chair of the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition of Harpers Ferry