Saturday, September 17, 2022

Inquirer Guest Essay: DEP Needs To Evaluate Health Impacts Of Evaporating Leachate From A Westmoreland Landfill Accepting Shale Gas Drilling Waste

By Justin Nobel

This guest essay first appeared on on September 16, 2022.  The deadline for submitting public comments on this process to DEP is September 19.

I’m a science journalist and four years ago, I fell down the oil-field radioactivity rabbit hole. 
Here in Pennsylvania, a landfill applying for a permit with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to evaporate liquid landfill runoff — called leachate — could create airborne radioactive material over people downwind.

Every day across the nation, about 2.8 billion gallons of oil field brine are produced with toxic levels of salt, heavy metals, and the radioactive element radium. In Pennsylvania, levels have been recorded at up to 5,700 times EPA’s safe drinking water limit.

Sludge that forms on the bottom of tanks and trucks that hold brine can be even richer in radium and can also contain exceptional amounts of radioactive lead. And with every Marcellus well, crushed rock and dirt called drill cuttings are bored out of black shale — a type of geologic formation the U.S. Geologic Survey reported in 1960 was so rich in uranium they thought about mining it, with the oil “considered as a possibly important byproduct.”

All this waste must be handled, transported, and disposed of. My reporting has documented problems at every step. 

Brine is pumped deep underground at facilities called injection wells, which causes earthquakes. 

In Ohio, these wells are leaking. Sludge and drill cuttings are taken to treatment facilities where it’s often the task of improperly trained and inappropriately protected workers to mix in materials like lime in an attempt to solidify the material and lower the radioactive signature. 

If the radiation levels in the sludge decrease enough, the waste can be trucked to the same local landfills that handle household trash instead of being shipped by rail to radioactive waste disposal sites out west — a more expensive but safer option.

At Westmoreland Sanitary in Belle Vernon, Pa., the Department of Environmental Protection told me from 2013 through 2017, 276,416 tons of oil-field waste were disposed. 

The landfill has also taken more than 200 tons of oil-field waste from an Ohio facility.

An investigation I published last month revealed that workers are being dangerously exposed to radioactive sludge; I also found that railcars, which were being routed across the country to a disposal facility in the Utah desert, arrived at their destination leaking material.

As Ted Auch, an analyst with the advocacy group, FracTracker Alliance, told me, “waste is the oil and gas industry’s Achilles’ heel.” 

Costs of proper disposal are high and oversight is lax. A 1980 congressional exemption labeled oil-field waste nonhazardous despite many known hazards. 

As a result, the industry has regularly resorted to risky disposal measures, including disposing of oil-field brine at sewage treatment plants and spreading drilling waste on farm fields, a practice common in Oklahoma and Texas. 

For landfills that accept oil field waste, one big problem is leachate.

For years, liquid landfill waste from Westmoreland flowed through a sewer pipe and into Belle Vernon’s sewage-treatment plant. 

In 2019, I met the plant’s superintendent, Guy Kruppa. He told me the stuff was so toxic that it was ruining his plant’s ability to treat sewage. 

Not only that, but it was also sending contaminants into the Monongahela River, a drinking water source. 

That same year, a judge ordered the landfill to halt the practice. 

The Department of Environmental Protection told me about 17 truckloads of leachate a day was instead being shipped to other sewage plants, an option that the agency said, “is not a preferred situation.” 

Last month, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that leachate had leaked into a local stream and the landfill didn’t immediately phone the Department of Environmental Protection or emergency management officials, as required by law.

Liquid landfill waste clearly remains an issue, but we have two constantly moving bodies of fluids on this planet: water and air. If you can’t use water to carry away your waste for free, why not try the air?

A leachate evaporator is a gas-fired boiler that will cook away the liquid landfill waste. A pair of treatment systems will remove 99% of the radioactivity, according to Westmoreland, relying in part on a device called a mist eliminator. 

But the science of precisely how this will be done is not clear and was not well explained during a hearing in early September. 

Yet, it’s of utmost importance, because the agency admits radium is the main radioactive element “of concern in the landfill leachate proposed for evaporation” and has found radium at levels dozens of times EPA’s safe drinking water limit at similar landfills.

Radium is commonly referred to by radiation experts as “a bone seeker.” If accidentally inhaled or ingested, the radioactive element tends to accumulate in the bones, where it continues emitting radiation and can lead to cancer — just like happened with the infamous factory workers of the World War I era known as the Radium Girls.

Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill has not replied to my questions. 

Heartland Water Technology, the company providing the Leachate Evaporation System, did not answer my question as to how their system will remove radium, telling me, “Unfortunately, Heartland Water Technology is bound by confidentiality to our customers.”

While the Department of Environmental Protection has mandated that Westmoreland test regularly for radioactivity and instructed the landfill to “stop operations, if needed,” testing will be done through the landfill and results will not be immediately available to the public. 

Furthermore, no public health analysis was done for this evaporation project. 

Surrounding residents will become unwitting test subjects for what appears to be a novel method of leachate disposal for landfills accepting oil field waste.

Public Comments Due Sept. 19

I encourage all Pennsylvanians concerned about the oil and gas industry’s continued transgressions to raise their voices and comment. 

Information on Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill’s Leachate Evaporation System can be found here

Comments are due 4 p.m. Eastern on Monday, Sept. 19, and can be emailed to  or mailed to the DEP’s Southwest Regional Office, Air Quality Program, 400 Waterfront Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15222 and should contain the name, address, email, and telephone number of the person submitting the comments, identification of the proposed Plan Approval (PA-65-00767C), a concise statement, and the relevant facts upon which the comments are based.

Justin Nobel is working on a book about oil-field radioactivity to be published with Simon & Schuster.


-- TribLive: Westmoreland Landfill Cited For Leachate Leak Into Speers Run

Related Articles - Westmoreland Landfill:

-- DEP To Hold 2 Hearings On Air Quality Permit For Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill Leachate Evaporation System

-- DEP Fines Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill $24,000 To Resolve Waste Violations; Drilling Waste Impacts On Leachate

-- Belle Vernon Municipal Authority Taking A Stand Against Pollution From Drilling Waste

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[Posted: September 17, 2022]  PA Environment Digest

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