State and local officials are well on their way to burying radioactivity as an issue in the debate over whether to allow a major expansion of the Chemung County Landfill on the Chemung River about six miles southeast of Elmira.
The landfill, which has been leased to Casella Waste Systems Inc. since 2005, has been accepting drilling wastes from Pennsylvania since 2009 — often turning away its own municipal waste to save room for the more lucrative imports.
Now the county legislature is considering a plan to increase the landfill’s capacity from 180,000 tons of waste a year to 417,000 tons. The landfill that currently occupies 54 acres of a 327-acre site would add 50 acres of new lined landfill cells.
Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli, a supporter of the expansion, has taken the lead role in denying that radioactivity matters.
In a recent newspaper opinion column he said granite kitchen countertops are “several times more radioactive than drill cuttings.” Besides, he noted, Casella operators have installed a radiation detector at the landfill that has never once been triggered by a load of drilling waste.
Given the commercial opportunity at stake, it’s not likely that Santulli will be objectively weighing the evidence. In his case, the wisdom of Upton Sinclair applies: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.”
If not Santulli, then who will consider the matter objectively?
The landfill expansion requires the approval of both the county legislature and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Both have sidestepped the issue and let Santulli’s simplistic and biased analysis stand.
In a previous Chemung landfill expansion case in 2011, a DEC hearing officer ruled the question of radioactivity irrelevant and disallowed expert testimony about the dangers.
Those experts attempted to point out that drilling wastes originating from the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania contain unusually high levels of naturally occurring radiation, or NORM. The main threat is Radium 226, a dangerous carcinogen if it reaches water supplies or is inhaled as the byproduct radon, the nation’s No. 2 cause of lung cancer.
Dr. Earl Robinson, an Elmira pulmonologist who has opposed each bid to expand the landfill, testified in 2010 that to accept drilling waste was to recklessly ignore the effects of radioactivity in local water and air.
Those arguments didn’t fly with the DEC staff. At one hearing, a DEC attorney explained that her agency only regulated radioactive substances that had been “processed and concentrated.” NORM didn’t qualify. She testified that the level of radioactivity in the landfill was legally irrelevant to the agency.
In the latest push to expand the landfill, county officials have disallowing a full review of radiological risks on the grounds that the matter was settled in the 2011 DEC hearing case.
So, we’re back to Santulli’s assurances that drill cuttings are harmless and the Casella-installed radiation detector proves radiation is no problem.
But the radiation detector is largely for show. It tests for gamma rays, the most penetrating form of radiation, but not necessarily the most deadly. Only 4 percent of the emissions from Radium 226, the main threat, are gamma rays. The rest are alpha particles, which can’t penetrate loose clothing, let alone the metal sides of Casella’s waste haulers that roll by the detector.
Radium 226’s alpha particles are deadly when inhaled or ingested. “When alpha-emitters get in the body, they can set up business next to cells and bombard them,” said one scientist whose testimony the DEC disallowed.
Santulli wasn’t far off in saying drill cuttings are harmless. Unfortunately, they arrive in a semi-liquid mud or sludge or soup consisting of Marcellus shale liquids that are the real threat.
Radium 226 is soluble in the naturally occurring Marcellus brine. For millennia NORM has leached into that brine that is brought to the surface during drilling.
When the DEC tested the brine from all 12 of the state’s Marcellus shale wells in 2008 and 2009, it found levels of Radium 226 far above the allowable limits for drinking water (5 picocuries per liter) or release into the environment (60 picocuries per liter). Brine from four of the wells showed Radium 226 readings in excess of 10,000 picocuries/liter.
Every well is different, so there’s no guarantee the Pennsylvania drilling wastes are that highly contaminated. But if they are, what better place to haul them to than Chemung, where state and local officials look the other way?
Instead of sidestepping the issue, the DEC should conduct its own tests on the leachate that seeps out of the bottom of the landfill. That leachate is hauled to the local wastewater treatment plant (which isn’t equipped to handle radioactive material) and then dumped into the river. The DEC should take quarterly measurements of leachate from each landfill cell and lagoon and compare them over time.
The alternative is business as usual, where consultants to Casella collect and analyze the leachate. The system invites backscratching so as not to disturb the flow of profits. One of the consulting reports the DEC received in 2012 on Chemung Landfill leachate was signed by the husband of a Casella executive.
Come on, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Order the DEC to do its job.
Peter Mantius’ opinion column appeared in 3/6/14 Corning (NY) Leader.
Peter Mantius is a freelance journalist from Schuyler County who follows shale gas drilling issues. He is a former reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and former editor of two business weeklies in the Northeast.