3 things to know about Center for Public Integrity’s latest Marcellus hit piece

CPI’s latest report is from organization with anti-fracking agenda, while ignoring available data for reality of the industry

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Map showing the Marcellus Basin on the Northeast Coast of the US.

The Center for Public Integrity (CPI)—funded by the anti-fracking Park Foundation—recently released a new report on the waste byproducts that are generated from Marcellus Shale development and their supposed radioactivity.

And, as with previous reports from CPI, their latest entitled, “Hot Mess” is, well, a bit of a hot mess itself. Let’s take a look.

Fact #1: Marcellus waste disposal is highly regulated and well-documented.

CPI’s report makes the claim that,

“’Nobody can say how much of any type of waste is being produced, what it is, and where it’s ending up,’ said Nadia Steinzor of the environmental group Earthworks, who co-wrote a report on shale waste. (Earthworks has received funding from The Heinz Endowments, as has the Center for Public Integrity).”

But that’s not accurate. In fact, the waste that is produced, what it is and where it’s ending up is very well documented in the Marcellus. Waste management is an important part of the regulations governed by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP):

“Oil and gas exploration is regulated under the state’s oil and gas laws (Oil and Gas Act, Coal and Gas Resource Coordination Act, and Oil and Gas Conservation Law), and the environmental protection laws that include the Clean Streams Law, the Dam Safety and Encroachments Act, the Solid Waste Management Act, and the Water Resources Planning Act.”

As part of the Solid Waste Management Act, operators must submit waste management reports electronically twice a year on or before February 15 and August 15. Wastewater disposal actually has even further regulation from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission as it is considered an industrial and a residual waste. As part of this,

“Drilling companies must also identify where produced wastewater will be stored, treated and disposed…Wastewater (fluids) must be recycled, treated at an authorized wastewater treatment facility, or disposed at an authorized waste disposal facility. DEP approval is required before the receiving treatment or disposal facility can accept wastewater for processing and/or disposal.

DEP inspects well sites from construction to reclamation to ensure that the site has proper erosion controls in place, and that any waste generated in drilling and completing the well was properly handled and disposed.”

Further, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and Penn State University conducted a report in 2012 analyzing how waste was reported and disposed of in 2011. The report found that,

“The main types of wastes included drilling cuttings and fluids from vertical and horizontal drilling and fluids generated from hydraulic fracturing [i.e., flowback and brine (formation) water]. Most reported drill cuttings (98.4%) were disposed of in landfills… Drilling fluids were largely reused (70.7%)… Reported flowback water was mostly reused (89.8%) or disposed of in brine or industrial waste treatment plants (8.0%)… Brine water was most often reused (55.7%), followed by disposal in injection wells (26.6%), and then disposed of in brine or industrial waste treatment plants (13.8%).”

The report also found that despite the continued increase of production throughout 2011,

“When standardized against the total amount of gas produced, all reported wastes, except flowback sands, were less in the second half than the first half of 2011.”

Fact #2: The majority of wastewater from the Marcellus is either recycled or sent for injection.

One of the main waste products produced from the Marcellus is water. According to the 2012 USGS report “in 2011, 71.5% of the reported brine water, drilling fluids, and flowback was recycled.” Today that number has only continued to increase as producers have developed better technology that allows them to reuse water again and again in their operations. According to a 2015 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article,

“Recycling wastewater from hydraulic fracturing in shale gas production has become the norm in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays. About 90 percent of what comes out of wells goes into the next job, Vidic said.”

What isn’t recycled is generally sent to injection wells in states like Ohio where the process is strictly regulated. And the industry is already looking ahead to the possibility that someday there may be more fluids generated than what is needed for future operations. From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article,

“Researchers and a few innovators are focused on desalination technologies that can remove the salt as crystals, leaving behind other solids that can be taken to landfills, and distilled water.”

Fairmont Brine Processing has a plant in West Virginia that converts wastewater to salt crystals, sludge and distilled water by using pressure and heat, said CEO Dave Moniot. The process requires a lot of energy and several expensive plants spread across Appalachia to cut down on transportation, Vidic and others said.

Vidic received a $496,000 grant from the Department of Energy to explore a less-energy-intensive technology to remove salts by using low-grade heat from power plants to filter wastewater through membranes. Work on that just began.

Making desalination commercially viable will require finding uses for the resulting crystals beyond road salt, Vidic said.”

Fact #3: Reports have shown radioactivity for solid Marcellus waste is within acceptable levels at landfills.

The CPI report claims that,

“But concerns about fracking largely have focused on injection wells and seismic activity,with less attention paid to “hot” waste that arrives at landfills and sets off radiation alarms.”

Perhaps the media and others have not found these issues to be concerning because of the existing research and data surrounding the solid waste that is sent to landfills in the region. Most recently, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) released a study in 2015 that concluded,

“…The researchers found little concern with regards to the leachate from drill cuttings that were placed in approved and permitted landfills, once that leachate was processed through a correctly operated treatment facility.” (emphasis added, Pg.2)

Conclusions specifically addressing radiation included,

  • Radioactive compound levels in landfill leachate are at similar levels at both landfills that accept drill cuttings, and landfills that don’t accept drill cuttings.”
  • “Drill cuttings from the Marcellus Shale formation contain radioactive compounds at levels higher than the overlying strata, and are likely contributing to radioactive compounds present in landfill leachate. However, radioactive compounds are found at landfills that don’t accept drill cuttings, therefore it can be expected that radioactive compounds present in landfill leachate, at landfills that accept drill cuttings, are also the result of other materials being accepted in the landfill.”
  • Radon levels recorded are significantly below proposed federal drinking water standards.” ( emphasis added, 154)

And according to the Pennsylvania DEP,

“DEP’s data indicates that less than half a percent of all drill cuttings produced by the Marcellus Shale industry in 2012 that were disposed of in landfills triggered radiation monitors. The cuttings did not contain levels of radioactivity that would be harmful to the public, and they were safely disposed of in the landfills.” (emphasis added)

In fact, a 2015 report from the regulatory agency found that,

There is little potential for radiation exposure to workers and the public at facilities that treat O&G wastes. However, there are potential radiological environmental impacts that should be studied at all facilities in Pennsylvania that treat O&G wastes to determine if any areas require remediation. If elevated radiological impacts are found, the development of radiological discharge limitations and spill policies should be considered.”

And that,

There is little potential for radiation exposure to workers and the public from landfills receiving waste from the O&G industry. However, filter cake from facilities treating O&G wastes are a potential radiological environmental impact if spilled, and there is also a potential long-term disposal issue. TENORM disposal protocols should be reviewed to ensure the safety of long-term disposal of waste containing TENORM.”

But it’s not just regulatory agencies that have discussed radiation at landfills. The landfills themselves have also issued statements:

Larry Shilling, VP at Casella Waste Systems explained to  the Olean Times-Herald (NY) in 2014,

“Another misconception, said Mr. Shilling, is that these drillings contain highly concentrated amounts of radioactivity. He said this simply isn’t the case, stating there are only trace amounts — typically found in the liquid remnants on the drillings — which is no more than what a person might find in everyday items.

You can find higher concentrations of radioactivity in tiles and granite countertops, cat litter … anything made of stone may be radioactive,’ he said.

Mr. Shilling also said his facility prescreens the materials prior to them coming to the site and then scans each truck for radiation at the entrance gate. Trucks carrying materials out from the site also travel through the detectors.

Mr. Shilling added that if a truck activates the radiation detector upon entry, his staff immediately checks the materials to determine what the source of the radiation is and also notifies the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) about the alarm.” (emphasis added)

And Carl Spadaro, environmental manager at Max Environmental has also stated that he wasn’t concerned about the radioactivity:

“We’ve been doing a fair amount of drilling waste disposal activity over past 10 to 12 months. Since we’ve had that radiation limit change last year, we haven’t had one incident of any truck with drilling waste triggering a radiation alarm at the Yukonfacility.”

Conclusion

How waste from oil and gas operations is safely handled and disposed of will likely always be a major topic of discussion as technology and production amounts change. The industry has shown that it can change with the times to effectively manage this through its efforts to recycle nearly all waste, find alternative methods to treat it, and continue to strive for better practices as new technologies become available. CPI’s latest report is yet another in a string from the organization that pushes an anti-fracking agenda, while ignoring available data for the reality of the industry.

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