By Ted Auch, PhD – Ohio Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
The Akron Beacon Journal’s Bob Downing has just published an investigative report looking at the recent advisory put forth by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s (OEPA) Division of Materials and Waste Management – along with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management and the Ohio Department of Health (OHD)  Bureau of Radiation Protection – to all of Ohio’s municipal solid waste landfills. The advisory suggests that the landfills statewide – including 17 industrial residual waste, 40 municipal solid waste, 36 orphaned landfill facilities along with 64 transfer stations – should prepare to start receiving solid Utica and Marcellus shale drilling waste, “including drill cuttings, drilling muds, and frac sands,” (especially since Pennsylvania seems to be cracking down on some of its traditional drilling waste disposal practices). This new waste stream is in addition to the millions of barrels of potentially radioactive liquid waste already being trucked in from PA and WV  for deep well injection – and potentially shipped into Washington County, OH along the Ohio River . This advisory is concerning because the same regulatory bodies have been conveying to other media outlets (e.g. The Columbus Dispatch) that such activities are strictly prohibited and that injection of Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (TENORM) is “almost the perfect solution” compared to to landfill disposal.
If the advisory is correct, however, there are complications associated with using this disposal method relative to the waste’s viscosity, elevated levels of Total Dissolved Solids (TDSs), and/or concentrations of TENORM. Materials deemed suitable for municipal landfills must not exceed five picocuries per gram radium above background levels; however, early returns speak to the potential for shale wastewater to be:
… 3,609 times more radioactive than a federal safety limit for drinking water…[or] 300 times higher than a Nuclear Regulatory commission limit for industrial discharges to water. Learn more
Additionally, Marcellus brine may have salinity and radium levels three times that of traditional sandstone/limestone oil and gas wells of the Cambrian-Mississippian age. To put this Marcellus data in perspective, the range was 0-18 picocuries per gram with a median value of 2.46 picocuries per gram. Issues associated with brine disposal, however, are not new here in Ohio where researchers like The Ohio State University’s Wayne Pettyjohn reported excessive levels of freshwater chloride (35-320,000 mg/l) pollution in Morrow, Delaware, and Medina counties. These results prompted Pettyjohn to write “ground-water resources may be seriously and perhaps irreparably contaminated long before landowners are even aware that a problem exists” (Pettyjohn, 1971).
The solution proposed by the authors of this advisory is to use the US EPA’s “paint-filter test” bringing materials into compliance with Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) 264.313 and 265.313, which basically ended the practice of disposing of “liquid waste or waste containing free liquids” in 1985. The EPA’s Paint Filter Liquids Test (Method 9095B) is summarized as follows:
Material is placed in a paint filter [Mesh number 60 +/- 5% (fine meshed size)] . If any portion of the material passes through and drops from the filter … the material is deemed to contain free liquids.
This advisory is likely due to the backlash associated with injection well incidents, including the Youngstown earthquakes attributed by some scientists to the lubrication effect that injected materials have on geologic faults. Additionally, rural communities – and researchers – in Ohio’s Utica Shale basin are beginning to raise questions around the practice of spreading shale gas brine on roads as a substitute for salt in the winter and approved disposal method during the summer. Concerns revolve around elevated levels of chlorides in excess of 2-5 times EPA public drinking-water standards (Bair and Digel, 1990). Unfortunately, the OEPA advisory is ambiguous about post-disposal monitoring, suggesting only that:
… the landfill may need to perform monitoring of landfill systems, such as those related to leachate collection, to determine potential impacts to human health or the environment associated with these [TENORM] waste streams.
This inclusion of the word may rather than must further alienates communities already skeptical about the ability or will of ODNR – and now OEPA and ODH – to regulate and/or ensure adequate monitoring of unconventional natural gas drilling activities. If this advisory is any indication related activities will be spreading beyond the Utica Basin to the state’s 21 hazardous and 121 non-hazardous waste facilities (Figure 1), with specific focus on the 57 industrial residual and municipal solid waste facilities throughout the state (Figure 2 below). Such a regulatory development has serious ramifications for PA’s 40+ municipal waste landfills, 5 construction/demolition waste landfills, 3 residual waste landfills, and 6 resource recover/waste to energy facilities (see full PA stats) and the nation’s 1,908 Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) landfills as reported in BioCycle (2010).
As drilling intensifies in the Utica Shale, nearby states may be further burdened by the mounting waste stream. Communities once thought to be disconnected from hydraulic fracturing will be forced to debate the merits of allowing such waste in their communities, similar to the situation facing non-Utica Shale cities in Ohio. Such a discussion will be unavoidable given that 84% of the state’s waste treatment facilities are located outside what could liberally be referred to as the Ohio Shale play (Figure 2 Inset).