WV Landfill Chair: State Too Eager For Shale Waste

  • EQT well pad in Mobley, Wetzel County, West Virginia, photographed November 2013. Photo: Bill Hughes

June 20, 2014

A West Virginia landfill authority chairman says his state's allowing too much Marcellus shale industry waste without knowing just how much radioactivity and chemicals are in it.  But he says his concerns are falling on deaf ears in the legislature, in part because too much money is at stake.

The issue of radioactive shale waste in landfills made headlines in May. That's when a pile of waste too radioactive for Pennsylvania landfills was sent to West Virginia.

But even before that, Bill Hughes, who heads the solid waste authority in Wetzel County, had been raising the alarm about problems with Marcellus waste in landfills. The Marcellus shale is a particularly radioactive rock formation, which hasn't escaped the notice of the drillers. They look for radioactive "hot spots" in determining where to drill. 

Hughes says his state been slow to put in place safeguards for Marcellus waste.

“We have a lot of specialized waste disposal facilities that are associated with specific industries," Hughes says. "With coal mining, power plants, chemical plants and other industrial plants, well, they get a special permit for an industrial waste location.”

But for now in West Virginia, like in New York, Marcellus Shale waste is going to municipal landfills, those which are designed to hold household waste, he says. Hughes is concerned that the waste could contaminate local water supplies.

Hughes started serving on the solid waste authority because he wanted to protect the water and land, since all his grandchildren live in the area. Forty years ago, he and his wife moved to Wetzel County, located in the northern part of the state on the Ohio River, to get away from the urban pace of Pittsburgh.

But Hughes expresses disappointment about how the shale boom has changed the character of his home. He cites the frequent truck traffic and the impact on roads. 

And he says the Wetzel County landfill is now regularly taking four times the amount of waste it was intended to hold. That is, he says it was designed to allow 10,000 tons a month in household garbage, but now drillers are dropping off so much waste that 40,000 tons are piling in every month. 

And he says that while West Virginia, to its credit, is testing the leachate, a kind of wet runoff from landfills, to look for radioactivity, that's not the case with the solid waste material.  Hughes says the issue is scientifically complicated, and he thinks that is one reason it's not being dealt with properly. The money at stake is another. 

"There's no financial incentive to do this right," Hughes says. 

At the Wetzel County landfill alone, he says, last year the landfill operator earned $6.5 million and the state got $2.5 million for fees. Regulations or testing would raise the cost to drillers and lower the income of landfill operators, Hughes says.

The state, for its part, is poised to put radiation monitors at landfills beginning in 2015, according to a House Bill passed in West Virginia's legislature.  And the Department of Environmental Protection is working to make this happen even sooner.  The agency is drafting an emergency rule to expedite that regulation and hopes that radiation monitors will be in place in August.

Meanwhile, West Virginia DEP spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater says that her agency tested the material and "while we did find some levels of radiation, all of those levels were low, in fact much lower than federally acceptable." 

She adds that "the agency ordered that this material be covered (by soil), which it was, and determined no violations would be issued to landfill owner."

Meanwhile, Gillenhall says, Waste Management voluntarily had its special waste permit for the Range Resources waste rescinded, meaning it will not be accepting any more of this material from Range.

Wetzel says the state is playing catch up, writing legislation five years on to deal with the issue, and that the state's water could be at risk.

Reporter Matt Richmond contributed to this story.