by: Isabelle Z.
Denny and Vivian Smith live in the idyllic Estill County town situated near the Kentucky River on property that has belonged to their ancestors since the 1800s. Last August, the area was descended upon by a convoy of trucks that were transporting concentrated fracking waste from northern West Virginia to the Blue Ridge Landfill.
The trucks brought 400 tons of low-level radioactive waste to the facility, which is not permitted to accept this type of waste.
The landfill’s other neighbors? Estill County Middle School and Estill County High School, which have a combined enrollment of 1,200 public school students.
Neighbors and parents are outraged, and the community is demanding to know how this could have happened. State agencies are also asking a lot of questions.
Poor federal oversight and inconsistent state regulations
One big part of the problem is the poor and inconsistent federal oversight and mess of state regulations governing this kind of waste. There is no single government agency completely responsible for radioactive waste from horizontal oil and gas operations, leading the Center for Public Integrity to call it “orphan waste.”
Therefore, each state must figure out how to deal with. It. New York, for example, has banned fracking, but it does still allow waste disposal with very weak overnight. Meanwhile, Ohio has not formalized waste rules at all.
Hydraulic fracturing produces wastewater that measures in the hundreds of thousands of tons in the Ohio Valley area. The drilling process concentrates the radioactive materials that naturally occur deep inside the earth, and this waste is hazardous not only to the environment, but also public health.
A number of state agencies are now investigating the landfill for accepting this waste. Although it is not quite as hazardous as nuclear power plant waste, the Environmental Protection Agency admits that the radioactive materials that are found in drilling waste do pose risks.
The radioactive leachate can contaminate groundwater over time, and the radioactive dust carries its own set of problems. Worst of all, radioactive waste is known to last centuries, outliving the engineered lifespan of liners found in many landfills.
Vivian Smith said: “We are getting older and we feel like we’re kind of vulnerable to illnesses with what’s going on at the landfill.”
Like many people in the area, she is disheartened that this type of act was able to take place and wonders what could happen to the children attending the nearby schools.
“Knowing that there was nothing going on to protect us, I think it’s like the henhouse was not guarded and the fox got in,” she added.
This is just the latest example of how the inconsistency in state regulations ends up causing mistakes and general confusion.
EPA needs to do more
The EPA did recently take a step in the right direction by banning the disposal of fracking waste water at any publicly owned treatment works. This measure is aimed at preventing the contaminants contained in this waste, such as chemical additives and heavy metals, from entering public water systems.
However, this may not have a noticeable impact in places like Pennsylvania, where most energy companies have found other disposal methods following a call by former governor Tom Corbett to end the practice. Nevertheless, it should help deter new efforts to dispose of the waste at public plants during the future gas rushes that the state is bracing for.
Many western Pennsylvanian residents living along the Monongahela River still remember having to use bottled drinking water in 2008 and 2009 after fracking waste that was not properly treated was pumped into the Mon by municipal sewage plants when the natural gas boom first hit the area.
The Pennsylvania Director of environmental group Clean Water Action, Myron Arnowitt, said: “We are pleased to see EPA set clear rules to stop this practice. Pennsylvania residents have learned the hard way that when the oil and gas industry is allowed to use sewage plants as their dumping sites our water becomes undrinkable.” However, much more needs to be done to deal with the problem.
With so many potential sources of water contamination out there, many people are rightfully concerned about whether their own drinking water is truly safe for consumption. In light of this, Mike Adams, the Health Ranger, is leading an effort to test water samples from around the country for free. He has tested more than 200 samples so far, and instructions for submitting samples can be found on the EPA Watch website. The test results of the first hundred samples are published in the Natural Science Journal.