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Toxic Fracking Waste Becomes Mounting Problem for Downstream Communities

We know the dangers of fracking operations – groundwater contamination, air quality issues, devastating health impacts – but what many might not realize is that the fracking industry is allowed to dispose of its wastes in landfills across Pennsylvania. 

As a result, dangerous chemicals in fracking waste – such as radioactive materials – eventually make their way into Pennsylvania waters, threatening the health and safety of our communities and our streams.

The Marcellus Shale is estimated to contain 10 to 100 parts per million (ppm) of uranium, up to 33 times the national average. This unique geology means that rocks brought to the surface during Pennsylvania fracking operations likely have high levels of Radium-226. The industry calls this waste “technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material” (TENORM). 

Given the long-term implications of exposure to radium, one of the radioactive chemicals found in fracking waste, communities are raising concerns. Clearly, greater scrutiny is needed — both of fracking operations and of the landfills that accept the industry’s waste.

Although Pennsylvania landfills are not permitted to accept liquid waste, some 30 landfills in Pennsylvania and several in neighboring states accept drill cuttings from fracking sites. Pennsylvania landfills are required to screen drill cuttings to ensure they do not exceed maximum radioactivity levels. But what happens after the cuttings are admitted into the landfill? 

When fracking waste combines with stormwater, the pool of leached water mixed with chemicals (“leachate”) may become a dangerously radioactive runoff, flowing into downstream treatment facilities or directly into nearby waterways. 

Landfills are required to treat leachate or somehow capture and transport it to other treatment facilities, but there are no requirements that landfills trace the leachate from fracking waste. This means that radioactive leachate may be threatening our waters without us knowing. 

StateImpact Pennsylvania has found 16 wastewater treatment plants take treated leachate from landfills. Another 12 treatment plants are too small to be screened by DEP and instead, if they are at all taking action to treat or prevent the inflow of fracking leachate, do so voluntarily. 

Public Herald has also investigated these scenarios, producing a map that shows the location of 30 landfills likely to accept fracking waste and some 20 wastewater treatment plants that may be receiving the contaminated leachate.  

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection declared in a 2016 report that the public faced “little potential for radiation exposure” from landfills receiving fracking waste. Defenders of the report later said any treatment plants that accept contaminated leachate remove the radium

But the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill, where the fracking industry deposited nearly 160,000 tons of drill cuttings, mud, and other fracking waste in 2018, has proven this was a faulty assumption and that the threat is real. 

The landfill has been receiving fracking waste since 2010 and up until May 2019, leachate flowed downhill from the landfill, directly into the sewer, where it eventually made its way to the Belle Vernon Municipal Authority’s treatment plant. 

The authority reported that the leachate was killing bacteria intended to treat the wastewater. Tests of the Monongahela River near the plant showed levels of radium at 8 picocuries per liter. The EPA standard for drinking water is 5.

Because of this highly contaminated leachate, the Authority cancelled its contract to treat the leachate from the landfill due to the fact that the leachate from the landfill had become untreatable and threated the water quality of the Monongahela. Since then, the landfill has been forced to truck its contaminated leachate to an out-of-state treatment facility. 

The contaminated leachate also resulted in environmental litigation against the landfill and in February 2020, DEP issued a consent order with Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill, charging the facility a $24,000 civil penalty and requiring actions to minimize leachate generation.  

In May, the landfill announced plans to use an “ultra-filtration” system to remove solids from the radium-rich leachate by evaporating it into the atmosphere — up to 45,000 gallons of leachate per day.  PennFuture joined others in opposing this proposal citing the significant threat to human health and the environment from the resulting radon gases that are likely to be emitted through the evaporation process.

PennFuture argued that no approval should be issued unless and until DEP has sufficiently monitored, reviewed, considered, analyzed, and mitigated, if necessary, this threat. 

We’re continuing to monitor this matter as well as others to protect Pennsylvanians and our environment from the dangers – known and unknown – that the fracking and petrochemical industries pose. 

Please consider supporting our efforts by becoming a member today!

PennFuture will continue to monitor the fracking industry and to support community groups that advocate for the defense of their local waterways.

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