CHARLESTON - Two studies commissioned by the Wetzel County Solid Waste Authority show numerous unknown variables and unanswered questions for the state's landfills which are accepting drilling waste from Marcellus Shale and other horizontal drilling projects.
The reports were presented Wednesday in Charleston during the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection's final public hearing on revisions to state rules governing the storage and testing of those drill cuttings.
The department this week is expected to file revisions to 33CSR1, the Solid Waste Management Rule. The revisions would replace emergency rules put into place earlier this year.
Photo by Bill Hughes
An aerial view of the Wetzel County Landfill, one of several West Virginia landfills grappling with how to handle waste from horizontal drilling, which often contains heavy metals and radioactive materials. Officials say county landfills are not equipped to contain and monitor these sources of toxic waste.
According to the department, the proposed rule revisions "establishes protocols for the proper handling, management and disposal of drill cuttings and associated drilling mud generated in the exploration and production of oil and gas from the horizontal drilling process. It also requires radiation and leachate monitoring at all facilities receiving drill cuttings and associated drilling mud."
The two reports by Downstream Strategies of Morgantown and by Bennett & Williams Environmental Consultants of Westerville, Ohio, are based on a review of the proposed revisions to 33CSR1, the Solid Waste Management Rule.
The reports present suggestions and questions concerning the rules and revisions.
Bill Hughes, chairman of the Wetzel County Solid Waste Authority, said the most striking feature of both reports is the number of unanswered questions. The Downstream Strategies report posed 34 questions to the department concerning the containment, monitoring and regulating of those wastes in landfills. The Bennett & Williams study presented multiple pages of point-by-point questions and suggestions on the rules revisions.
"It should be clear to the Charleston folks we have a huge number of unanswered questions," Hughes said. "We are dealing with too many unknowns and uncharacterized elements."
The state has been accepting drill cuttings at landfills since 2011 and opponents say little research has been done to determine what is going into the ground and how the leachates "chemicals which leach off of those materials through rainwater and other liquids" affect waterways, including sources of public drinking water.
Hughes also said it is difficult to get an accurate idea of how much drill waste has been placed into county landfills. One snapshot shows 557,000 tons of drill waste was deposited in four landfills located in Wetzel, Brooke, Ohio and Wood counties between 2012 and 2013, he said.
"But we know some landfills were taking it earlier than that," he said. "Some were just mixing it with municipal garbage, some marked it as oil waste or industrial waste."
With traditional waste, officials know how to monitor and predict its decay. With drilling waste, "the state has never had to deal with this before," Hughes said.
The cuttings often contain a mix of heavy metals and other toxins as well as radioactive isotopes. Hughes said most facilities are not prepared to deal with containing or monitoring these contaminants, and municipal water treatment facilities are not equipped to remove radiation from water, all of which could lead to long-term and severe health issues for communities near the landfill sites and along contaminated waterways.
In a cover letter attached to the two reports, Hughes wrote the known risks combined with so many unknown elements has created a dangerous situation.
"This is a large experiment into uncharted territory without any template or models or maps to help us make prudent choices with regard to long-term environmental and public health implications," he said in the letter. "This is a leading edge problem of our own making. We need to proceed with the utmost prudence. Some of our decisions might be irreversible."
Scott Mandirola, director of the division of water and waste management for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said officials hope to have the final rule filed within the week.
"We need to respond to comments both verbal and written, and then we have to file that rule with the West Virginia Secretary of State so it goes to the Legislative Rule-Making Review Committee," he said.
Once it passes the committee the rule will be taken up by other committees during the 2015 legislative session.
Mandirola said representatives of the DEP likely will be called upon to testify before these committees to explain the rule revisions and the thoughts behind them. If it passes through the committees, the rule will ultimately come up for a vote before the full Legislature, he said.
"At this point I don't think we did anything dramatic that was outside the legislation itself," Mandirola said. "I think it's a pretty straightforward rule revision."
Mandirola said all public comments, including the two reports submitted by the Wetzel County Solid Waste Authority, will be included in the filing.
Hughes said he hopes to contact a handful of state legislators who will be involved in looking at the drill waste disposal rule.
"We want to continue to draw appropriate attention to the problem and inform others to the degree that is possible," he said.
Officials with the Wetzel County Solid Waste Authority also plan to make both reports available online, Hughes said.