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Disposal of radioactive fracking waste alarms activists | News, Sports, Jobs

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                                                                                        <p id="caption">Lynn Anderson, a member of FrackFree Mahoning Valley,  stands beside the Northstar injection well that was blamed for the magnitude-4.0 earthquake that struck the Greater Youngstown area on Dec.  31, 2011, and other smaller quakes.  

…Public Herald photo

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Everyone knows that oil and gas wells produce oil and natural gas, but these wells also produce radioactive material being disposed of in communities alongside household trash.

The Environmental Protection Agency defines the radioactive portion of this waste as TENORM (technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material). Though Ohio has strict regulations governing radioactive waste that comes across its borders, the state code doesn’t require the kind of extensive testing necessary to adequately measure radioactivity in TENORM waste, Public Herald reports.

Surrounding Youngstown are four separate facilities processing radioactive fracking waste. According to Public Herald, they are:

  • Carbon Limestone Landfill, Republic Services, Lowellville;
    • Mahoning Landfill, Waste Management, New Springfield;
  • Wastewater treatment plant in Lowellville;

  • “Chief’s order” facility called Ground Tech Inc. in Youngstown. Chief’s order facilities have special permission to operate outside of existing law, critics say.

    Lynn Anderson said she has spent nearly a decade working with FrackFree Mahoning Valley to keep Poland Township and the surrounding area safe from radioactive contamination. But the fight against the industry often seems unwinnable, Anderson said.

“People’s lives matter. You can’t sacrifice them for corporate profit,” she said.

FRACKING

Never before has the nation undertaken an experiment with radioactive material like the one happening now across the country thanks to technological advances in hydraulic fracturing, a deep, water-intensive, chemical-laden process to extract hard-to-reach fossil fuels.

The formations being fracked in Appalachia, including Ohio, from the Marcellus and Utica Shales, happen to be the hottest in the country — as in the most radioactive, researchers have said.

In 2020, Harvard scientists revealed that radiation downwind of unconventional fracking development is significantly higher than background levels and moreso in the Marcellus and Utica Shale due to the higher uranium content of those formations.

According to the industry, every part of the oil and gas continuum involves radioactivity. A 1982 report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute stated: “[a]lmost all materials of interest and use to the petroleum industry contain measurable quantities of radionuclides that reside finally in processing equipment, product streams, or waste.”

Oil and gas companies drill deep into the earth and blast water and chemicals into bedrock to access minerals. The process produces waste that includes drill cuttings, synthetic drilling muds, fracking chemicals, and naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) that would otherwise stay locked underground.

That waste is taken to facilities across the country, and in Ohio that includes local landfills, where rain filters through trash, carrying contaminants with it.

In landfills, the contaminated rainwater called “leachate” is transported to local sewage treatment facilities, which add the liquid to sewage for processing before dumping the leftovers into local waterways. But sewage is not treated for radioactive materials, so whatever TENORM goes into the facility also goes into the river, eventually. Or, TENORM can be lodged in sludge and filters making them radioactive for any material they come into contact with.

CHIEF’S ORDERS

But Ohio’s TENORM problems go beyond landfills and sewage waste treatment plants, which are governed under established state rules; there is another set of facilities authorized to handle fracking’s radioactive material, called “chief’s orders” facilities. Under chief’s orders, privately-owned facilities have special permission to operate outside of existing law, and critics of these orders say this all happens off the record.

In Ohio, the guessing game with the radioactive material from fracking is all happening in plain view of the Ohio EPA, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources , and the Ohio Department of Health — the three regulatory bodies responsible for keeping everyone safe from industrial pollution.

When a private company wants to “store, recycle, treat, process, and dispose of brine and other waste substances,” it needs one of the chief’s orders from ODNR.

But without detailed reporting requirements for the chief’s orders facilities, there’s no way Public Herald could find out how much waste has traveled through the 73 facilities that have handled fracking waste since the first order was granted in 2014. That year, Food and Water Watch and the FreshWater Accountability Project filed a complaint requesting a mandamus action against the state and ODNR, pushing for the removal of 23 facility orders active at the time and for no further orders to be granted.

The complaint states: “All Chief’s Orders issued by ODNR related to fracking waste facilities are illegal because they have not been issued as a result of procedures and requirements promulgated pursuant to” the Ohio Revised Code.

In 2018, the Supreme Court of Ohio denied an appeal of the action, affirming a lower court’s decision that Food and Water Watch and the FreshWater Accountability Project lacked standing, concluding that the plaintiffs did not demonstrate that their individual members would have standing in their own right. To establish standing, the court stated that “a litigant must show that it has suffered an injury that is fairly traceable to the defendant’s allegedly unlawful conduct, and likely to be redressed by the requested relief.”

STILL WAITING

Last amended in 2013, the Ohio Revised Code was meant to call for the adoption of rules regarding the proper care of oil and gas waste under chief’s orders. But as of 2021 those rules have not been finalized.

Eight years later, chief’s orders facilities, who would handle radioactive waste from fracking, are operating with no updated rules or oversight. Today, that leaves the potential for unregulated radioactive waste to enter rivers and watersheds across Ohio.

Teresa Mills, executive director of the Buckeye Environmental Network, told Public Herald that before the chief’s-orders system was implemented in 2014, Ohio had nothing on the books to regulate the private fracking-waste industry. Eight years after the implementation of the orders system, there’s still nothing.

Public Herald has identified 13 facilities actively storing or disposing of “brine, crude oil, natural gas, or other fluids” under chief’s orders; there are 35 facilities that are no longer active, and an additional 19 active facilities that have orders for operations other than storage or disposal, including brine and drilling mud recycling, truck washing and waste solidification. Six other facilities received similar orders and are no longer active.

Asked by Public Herald about why it’s taken eight-plus years to set new rules for chief’s orders facilities, Gov. Mike DeWine’s office had ODNR provide a statement:

“All oil and gas waste facilities operating under a Chief’s Order have to comply with the terms and conditions set forth in the Chief’s Order and all oil and gas rules/law in the Ohio Revised Code … and the Ohio Administrative Code … The Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management will continue to diligently regulate all of Ohio’s oil and gas waste facilities as the formal rulemaking process continues.”

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2021-08-07 23:32:54

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