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Marcellus Waste Radioactivity In Water Leaching From Landfills

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GRAPHIC: Tons of drill cuttings from Marcellus natural gas wells are going to municipal landfills in West Virginia, and radioactivity from the waste is leaching into surface water. Map: West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey.
GRAPHIC: Tons of drill cuttings from Marcellus natural gas wells are going to municipal landfills in West Virginia, and radioactivity from the waste is leaching into surface water. Map: West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey.
 By Dan HeymanContact
April 21, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Tests show that wastewater from gas field landfills contains radioactivity. That is raising concerns about the disposal of Marcellus Shale drill cuttings.

Bill Hughes, chair, Wetzel County Solid Waste Authority, said tests on water leaching from the Meadowfill landfill near Bridgeport show widely varying levels of radioactivity, sometimes spiking to 40 times the clean drinking water standard. The radioactivity occurs naturally in the drill cuttings and brine that come from Marcellus gas wells, he said, so it is in the waste dumped in Meadowfill and other landfills.

"We are putting radioactive waste in a bunch of landfills in large quantities, and we don't yet know the long-term danger of doing this," Hughes said.

Water leaching from Meadowfill averaged 250 picocuries per liter last year. The clean drinking water standard is 50, Hughes explained, adding that at times Meadowfill spiked as high as 2,000 picocuries or dropped below 40. Wetzel - the other landfill taking large amounts of the waste - also showed radioactivity.

The drinking water standards are probably too tight to use on fluids leaching from a landfill, he said, but the solid waste authority is defaulting to the tougher standard, simply because the county is not set up to deal with radioactive waste in municipal garbage dumps.

"It might not be a significant problem, because we've put a lot of other nasty stuff into the Ohio River," he said. "But especially after Elk River, we should really want to know what we are putting into the landfills and what's going into surface waters."

According to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, landfills are a safe and appropriate place to put the drill cuttings.

Hughes said the entire process shows that the state is playing catch-up to a big, rapidly moving industry.

"We haven't normally been putting radioactive material in a municipal waste landfill. We're not set up to process, handle, test, dispose. We don't know what we're doing," Hughes warned.

Concerns about radioactive drill cuttings have prompted state lawmakers to increase monitoring at the landfills. However, Hughes said, West Virginia is not moving fast enough on the issue.

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