The state Department of Environmental Conservation this week formally invited oral and written comments on the proposed expansion of a Steuben County landfill that imports fracking waste from gas drilling operations in Pennsylvania.
It’s a safe bet that any public responses that touch on health risks due to radioactivity will be officially logged in and then totally disregarded.
That will clear the way, previous commenters have argued, for the Hakes Landfill to continue to operate as a de facto radioactive waste dump seven miles northwest of Corning.
The DEC has already made up (or closed) its mind on the question of whether allowed Marcellus Shale fracking wastes might be dangerously radioactive: They’re not. The agency’s reasoning is spelled out in a September 2015 policy memo that opponents of fracking waste imports uncovered by a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request.
In August, the DEC doubled down. The agency approved a scoping document prepared by Hakes C&D Disposal Inc. that excluded radioactivity as a reviewable issue in a draft supplemental environmental impact statement, or DSEIS, the company prepared for its proposed expansion from 57.9 acres to 80 acres.
“Drill cuttings are screened prior to disposal and must pass through radiation detectors,” the DEC-approved scoping document said. “No drill cuttings loads have triggered radiation detectors. The disposal in the landfill is safe and environmentally sound.”
That’s the landfill’s stance, and the DEC is buying it despite glaring scientific shortcomings that have inspired howls of protest and a lawsuit.
The landfill’s scoping document acknowledges that the majority of previous comments “assert that radioactivity will not be managed properly and that the wastes being received at the Hakes Landfill should be characterized as radioactive waste, not solid waste.”
The document then brushes off those concerns, saying: “These questions have been raised and previously addressed in a statewide manner by the established program policy on drill cuttings (as spelled out in the Sept. 18, 2015 DEC memo).”
That’s the background behind the DEC’s Jan. 10 announcement that it had accepted the Hakes DSEIS and would entertain oral comments on it on Feb. 13 at the Campbell American Legion Post 1279 in Campbell (8458 County Route 333). It will also accept written comments postmarked by Feb. 26.
In November, the Sierra Club and others filed suit against the DEC and the landfill for “improperly excluding radioactivity issues from the analysis of environmental impacts” of the proposed Hakes expansion, in violation of the State Environmental Quality Review Act. The petition, filed in the Supreme Court of Steuben County by attorneys Rachel Treichler of Hammondsport and Richard Lippes of Buffalo, seeks to have the company’s DEC-approved scoping document annulled.
The September 2015 DEC policy memo that serves as the basis for excluding radioactive issues from the Hakes DSEIS was maintained in virtual secrecy, the lawsuit alleges.
The memo “was adopted without public input or comment and is not posted on the DEC website or otherwise made available to the public,” the lawsuit says. “Petitioners had to file FOIL requests to obtain the policy memorandum.”
The memo says drill cuttings from the Marcellus Shale “contain naturally occurring radioactive material, though the radioactivity is similar to background concentrations.”
Even so, the memo calls for radiation detectors at landfills that import Marcellus drilling waste, and it sets out standards for how landfills should operate them.
But the DEC fails to specify whether those detectors screen for alpha, beta or gamma radiation. It is a crucially important omission.
The primary health threats from Marcellus drill cuttings are the cancer-causing alpha and beta emissions from radium and radon. The Hakes radiation detector, a Ludlum 375 series area monitoring system, is described in Ludlum company literature as a “gamma monitor.”
Gamma rays can penetrate the metal sides of waste delivery trucks, but the dangerous alpha and beta particles cannot. So they go undetected.
Alpha particle radiation can’t even penetrate skin. But when the particles are ingested or breathed in, they settle in the bones, lungs and other internal organs and cause cancer. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, after cigarette smoking. Alpha particles from radon can become airborne in dust from landfills or seep into groundwater.
The scoping document stated that lab tests of leachate from the Hakes Landfill had not revealed elevated levels of radioactivity. But the Sierra Club lawsuit said the scoping document failed to address the the group’s reporting of Radium-226 levels as high as 180 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) in Hakes leachate.
(The U.S. EPA’s maximum allowable contamination level for Radium 226 and 228 combined is 5 pCi/L.)
The lawsuit said the Hakes Landfill appears to be one of only three New York State landfills that continue to import fracking waste, based on data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP). The DEC doesn’t systematically track it.
The other two Southern Tier frack waste importers are the Chemung Landfill east of Elmira and the Hyland Landfill in Angelica, about 80 miles to the west.
Drawing from Hakes Landfill sources, the lawsuit says the proposed landfill expansion would add more than 2.5 million cubic yards of disposal capacity, enough to extend the life of the landfill by five to 10 years. The expansion would not alter the facility’s permitted disposal rate of 1,494 tons per day.
Hakes is authorized to accept drill cuttings from air and water-based drilling fluids. But it is prohibited from taking bulk drilling fluids, flowback water, filter sludge or cuttings from operations using oil-based drilling fluids.
However, PADEP records show Hakes took 332 barrels of liquid fracking waste from Pennsylvania between 2010 and 2017, the lawsuit says.
Imports of fracking waste from Pennsylvania have continued after New York’s 2014 ban on high-volume horizontal fracking, and they remain controversial.
On several occasions, state legislators have attempted to ban the fracking waste imports, but Republicans in the state Senate have successfully blocked those efforts.
In April 2014, the Senate Committee Environmental Conservation voted 7-6 along party lines to kill a bill to ban frack waste imports.
Sen. Tom O’Mara (R-Big Flats) cast one of the deciding votes. The Hakes and Chemung landfills, which accept the vast majority of the state’s fracking waste imports, are located in his Senate district. Hakes is owned by Casella Waste Systems, which operates the Chemung facility.
In January 2015, O’Mara was appointed chair of the Senate’s Environment Committee, which oversees the DEC. The DEC’s policy memo followed in September.
(I explored O’Mara’s role in the preserving New York’s fracking waste imports in a magazine-length story for DCBureau.org in 2016.)