By Keith Matheny
As other states ban landfills from accepting low-level radioactive waste, up to 36 tons of the sludge already rejected by two other states was slated to arrive in Michigan late last week.
Wayne Disposal landfill located between Willow Run Airport and I-94 near Belleville is one of the few landfills in the eastern and Midwestern U.S. licensed to accept the radioactive waste, which has been collected by a Pennsylvania hydraulic fracking operation.
As regulations tighten in other states, companies are turning to Michigan as the radioactive sludge's dumping ground.
It was unclear Monday whether the waste had arrived and multiple messages seeking comment from Wayne landfill officials were not returned. State environmental regulators were not involved with the delivery but said that the companies appeared to be following carefully prescribed regulations.
Though the radiation is considered low-level and the landfill licensed by the state to handle it, nearby residents and environmentalists still worry over its potential to leak into rivers, lakes or groundwater over long periods of time.
Anne Woiwode, Michigan director of the nonprofit environmental group the Sierra Club, is concerned that water is at risk.
"We've got other states deciding they don't want it, which is why it's coming here," she said.
Woiwode said she's concerned about elevated radiation leaking into the Great Lakes, other waterways or groundwater.
"The question isn't just what kind of waste is coming, but why is waste coming here at all?"
The landfill is owned by EQ (The Environmental Quality Company), which was puchased in June by USEcology, one of the nation's largest environmental services companies. It's traded on the NASDAQ under the symbol ECOL.
Jeff Feeler, USEcology president and CEO, said in a June press release that the $465 milllion purchase of EQ "broadens our geographic footprint by adding a fifth hazardous waste landfill and a network of 18 treatment facilities serving the eastern half of the United States including many of the country's key industrial centers."
Though it's unclear how frequently Wayne Disposal accepts out-of-state fracking sludge, the landfill's website says handling it is one of its specialties. The type of waste can come from other sources than fracking.
The radioactivity, usually from the metal radium, accumulates from drill cuttings, the soil, rock fragments, and pulverized material removed from a borehole that may include fluid from a drilling process. It also can be present in flowback water, which is the brine or other fluid injected into shale formations during fracking that makes its way back to the surface.
The radioactivity levels of the waste are typically low, often not much higher than naturally occurring, ambient radiation in the environment. But because the levels are elevated, special regulations for disposal of the material are in place.
Ohio and West Virginia, two states with more intensive fracking activity than Michigan, have strengthened regulations on how to store, treat, process and dispose of radioactive oil and gas drilling wastes. Pennsylvania also doesn't allow the materials in its landfills. Each of the states leaves it to oil and gas developers to find a disposal site. As Ohio tightened its regulations, state officials listed the Wayne Disposal site as an option for Ohio drillers.
Pennsylvania and West Virginia -- two other states experiencing a fracking boom -- require radiation detectors at local landfills in large part to avoid improper disposal of radioactive drilling wastes.
'A load of sludge'
Range Resources, an oil and gas company, accumulated the material from its drilling operations in Washington County, Pa. It was rejected from a landfill in western Pennsylvania earlier this year after heightened radiation was detected. The company then began taking the material to a landfill in West Virginia, but that state's Department of Environmental Protection halted the practice in May, as it sought more information and instituted new rules tightening the state's management of radioactive drilling wastes.
"This is basically a load of sludge that came from storage tanks that were cleaned out and had accumulated over time," said John Poister, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. "It comes from the water used in hydraulic fracturing, and when it's stored, the solids tend to sink to the bottom and become a sludge."
That also causes the natural radioactivity to accumulate, Poister said.
"It's higher in radioactive readings than can be accepted in landfills in Pennsylvania," he said.
Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources, said the radioactivity levels in the sludge measured "between 40 and 260 microrems per hour" and were not detectable a few feet from the source. The sludge came in two containers capable of hauling 36 tons of material in total, though the boxes were not full, he said.
According the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, continued, long-term exposure over a period of months to up to 100 microrems of radiation can lead to health effects including changes in blood chemistry, nausea, fatigue, vomiting, hair loss, diarrhea and bleeding.
"There is no firm basis for setting a 'safe' level of exposure above background" radiation, the EPA's website states.
Pitzarella said the undetectability of the radiation just a few from the storage tanks "further indicates no risk to worker or community health or safety."
Wayne Disposal received approval from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to accept the material in 2006. DEQ had no involvement with last week's Pennsylvania fracking waste shipment, agency spokesman Brad Wurfel said.
"It's got components from gas and oil development, including low radioactive constituents, that require special handling, but the levels are not high enough to warrant a public health threat," he said.
"This actually is an example of responsible operation -- sending material to facilities where it can be treated and disposed properly."
Van Buren Township resident Harold Martin, who lives less than a quarter-mile from the landfill, said he understands the facility includes special liners to hold and protect the radioactive sludge and other hazardous materials.
"If a bulldozer operator accidentally drops the blade on that liner and pierces it, do you think they're going to report that?" he said. "They keep expanding and expanding."
Low levels or not, the words "radioactive waste" concern Kristen Yoder. The Van Buren Township resident lives less than a mile from the landfill. "It scares me because I have children, and anything having to do with radiation possibly leaking -- maybe into our water supply -- is a big, potential problem."
Yoder questioned Michigan's involvement in accepting the material.
"Why can't they dump it in their own states?" she said. "Why here?"
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