DEC Overlooks Red Flags for Radioactivity in Landfill Leachate

Red flags for dangerously high levels of radioactivity appear in leachate samples from a Southern Tier landfill that accepts gas drilling wastes from Pennsylvania, according to three expert witness affidavits filed recently in a court case challenging the landfill’s proposed expansion.READYCarpenterREADY
Leachate from the Hakes C&D Landfill in Painted Post contains “extremely high” concentrations of byproducts of the decay of radium-226 and radon-222, according to the affidavits.
The findings directly contradict the official stance of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which insists that radioactivity levels in imported fracking wastes are “similar to background concentrations.”
That assertion is spelled out in a closely-held 2015 policy memo that the DEC is now citing to justify restricting public debate about the health risks of importing Pennsylvania’s fracking waste.
The DEC has not yet filed a formal legal response to the new evidence, and it maintains the policy of declining public comment on pending litigation.
The evidence may represent the strongest scientific challenge yet to the DEC’s stance, which undergirds New York State policy of continuing to accept fracking waste imports nearly four years after the state banned the high-volume fracking process that produces it.READYHakespdf
“There is reason to believe the DEC is underestimating the amount of radioactivity deposited in and being released from the (Hakes) landfill,” said David O. Carpenter, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany. In an affidavit dated Jan. 17, Carpenter said the DEC’s declaration that permitted fracking waste imports don’t exceed background concentrations is “simply untrue.”
The DEC’s current procedures at the Hakes Landfill pose “significant risks to human health,” wrote Carpenter, a Harvard Medical School-trained physician and a former Director of the Wadsworth Center for Laboratories and Research of the New York State Department of Health. “The greatest concern is the inhalation of radon.”
The new evidence was uncovered by Raymond Vaughan, an environmental scientist from Buffalo who provided an affidavit dated Jan. 18. Vaughan reviewed leachate reports and analyses provided to the DEC by Pace Analytical Services LLC and On-Site Technical Services Inc. on behalf of Casella Waste Services, owner and operator of Hakes Landfill.READYRayVaughanpdf
Vaughan, who holds a Ph.D in geology from the University of Buffalo, shared his findings with Carpenter and Dustin M. May, a chemist who has studied radioactivity of Marcellus shale drill cuttings with a team at the State Hygienic Lab at the University of Iowa.
In a Jan. 17 affidavit, May wrote that nine leachate samples from sections of the Hakes Landfill that have received Pennsylvania drilling wastes show “extremely high” concentrations of lead-214 and bismuth-214, byproducts from the decay of radium-226 or radon-222.
While the leachate samples taken from 2012 to 2017 showed “very low” levels of radium-226, concentrations of radon-222 were “impossible to know” without direct measurements, May wrote. He recommended further testing and predicted the radon-222 readings would be “higher than or equal to” the unusually high lead-214 and bismuth-214 readings.READYDecayChartpdf
Vaughan wrote this about the anomalous lead-214 and bismuth-214 readings:
“There are two alternative explanations for the mismatch between lead-214 and bismuth-214 test results and reported radium-226 test results,” Vaughan wrote. “These involve either underreported levels of radium-226 or high, unreported levels of radon-222 in the landfill leachate. The latter is more likely, but additional testing is needed to confirm this.”
It is not known whether DEC officials have taken note of the high lead-214 and bismuth-214 readings and understand their significance.READYDEC
For years, those agency officials have been dismissive of public outcry over the state’s policy of accepting wastes from Pennsylvania drilling in the Marcellus shale, one of the most radioactive shale formations in the country. They have reportedly said Marcellus “drill cuttings” are less radioactive than — among other things — kitchen table counters, hospital diapers and smoke alarms.
In keeping with its conviction that imported fracking waste is benign, the DEC doesn’t bother to track it. So New Yorkers who are looking for hard government data must turn to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. (The non-governmental group FracTracker.org also provides detailed maps and data on Pennsylvania drilling wastes.)
Officially, New York allows solid waste landfills like Hakes to accept imported drill cuttings from air- and water-based drilling fluids. But they are not supposed to accept imports of bulk drilling fluids, flowback water, filter sludge or cuttings from operations using oil-based drilling fluids.
But DEC enforcement of any distinction has been spotty, given that Pennsylvania records show Hakes and other landfills have accepted thousands of barrels of imported liquid fracking waste.READYFrackWasteChart2
According to a June 2017 report from the Environmental Advocates of New York, five New York landfills had accepted more than 608,000 tons of Pennsylvania fracking waste through March 2017, including 23,000 barrels of liquid waste. Three continue to import the waste: Hakes, the Chemung County Landfill in Loman and the Hyland Landfill in Angelica.
In response to Hakes Landfill’s request to expand from 57.9 acres to 80 acres, the DEC required the landfill to prepare a draft supplemental environmental impact statement. But the agency said the DSEIS did not need to include an analysis of health risks related to radiation because those issues were covered and settled in the DEC’s 2015 policy memo.
The policy memo — produced without any public input and withheld from the DEC’s website — stated that radiation detectors at landfills that screen incoming trucks provide assurance that incoming drilling wastes are safe. Truck screening and leachate analysis are adequate backstops to protect public health, the agency says. Those positions are reasserted in the DSEIS prepared by the Casella-owned landfill.READYCasella “The Hakes Landfill is required to operate radiation detection systems to ensure that regulated radioactive wastes are not improperly accepted for disposal,” the DSEIS says. “At no time have any drill cuttings or other wastes from the oil and gas extraction industry set off the detector alarms at Hakes Landfill…
“In addition, Hakes Landfill regularly monitors its leachate and leachate sediment for radioactivity…Again, at no time have any levels been detected that would indicate any radioactivity beyond those associated with background levels.”
But Vaughan in his affidavit points to a host of deficiencies in the methodology for using a gamma detection machine to screen waste-hauling trucks for radioactivity. “The use of a gamma monitor to infer radium-226 concentration in the incoming waste has the potential to be wildly inaccurate and cannot be considered reliable,” Vaughan wrote.
Furthermore, the Hakes monitor is not designed to screen for alpha particle emissions, by far the most dangerous radiation arriving in the waste loads.READYMaypdf
Meanwhile, May, the Iowa chemist who studied Marcellus shale drill cuttings, found that their radioactivity consistently exceeded background levels.  May wrote that his team found that concentrations of six radioactive substances, including radium-226, tended to be 2-3 times higher in the drill cuttings — 5-8 pCi/g (average picocuries per gram) — than in regular soil found in the eastern United States. Sludge from drilling flowback could be even higher — 10 to several hundred pCi/g — he added.
The Hakes leachate samples were notable for their very high concentrations of lead-214 and bismuth-214. In nine of 79 analyzed samples, both substances exceeded 1,000 pCi/g. In one case, both exceeded 6,000 pCi/g.
Each substance has a half-life of less than half an hour — a small fraction of the time between sample collection and measurement. May and Vaughan agreed that since both are produced by the decay of radium-226 or radon-222, one or both of the latter two substances must be present in the leachate.
“The foregoing issues of high radionuclide concentrations in leachate need to be acknowledged and addressed in a transparent, deliberative and defensible manner, preferably in the context of an EIS process,” Vaughan wrote.
In November, the Sierra Club and others sued the DEC in a bid to force it to require the DSEIS to address radioactivity issues. To buttress their case, plaintiffs obtained the affidavits from Carpenter, Vaughan and May and filed a memorandum of law. The DEC and the landfill have not yet responded.
Carpenter wrote that Vaughan’s calculation that radon in air above the leachate could exceed 1 million pCi/L (average picocuries per liter) means anyone in the vicinity of the leachate is at risk. “The greatest concern is inhalation of radon,” Carpenter wrote.
“Radon will also be released into air over the landfill,” he added. “The leachate will migrate into ground water, where radon will be transported and will appear in the drinking water of people on wells and be ingested. A major hazard will come from hot water showers, where the radon is released from the water by the heat and will fill the shower stall and be inhaled.
“The radon will also migrate up from the ground water in basements of homes, where it will be inhaled by occupants.”
Carpenter concluded that the net effect of the DEC policy of allowing imports of drill cuttings and other wastes from Pennsylvania fracking operations will be that “New Yorkers will have an increased risk of cancer, especially lung and gastrointestinal cancers, an increased risk of birth defects coming from DNA damage and an increased risk of a shortened life span.”
A public hearing on the DSEIS is scheduled for 6 p.m. Feb. 13 at the Campbell American Legion Post 1279 in Campbell (8458 County Route 333). The DEC will also accept written comments on the DSEIS postmarked by Feb. 26.

3 thoughts on “DEC Overlooks Red Flags for Radioactivity in Landfill Leachate”

  1. Hey Peter.

    I’m so glad you’re working on this, too!

    I do take some exception to “In keeping with its conviction that imported fracking waste is benign, the DEC doesn’t bother to track it. So New Yorkers who are looking for hard data must turn to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.”

    Every year, since 2011, I (through FracTracker posts) summarize, map, and post the DEP waste inventory. See Details page of the map here .

    While the 2017 comprehensive data are not yet out, they should be available in the next few weeks. I’ll be sure to send you a reminder link, too.

    Best,

    Karen

    Liked by 1 person

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