Shale Study Falls Short

Little usable data gathered on drill cuttings, waste

Morgantown Dominion Post
6 January 2014
By David Beard

CHARLESTON — A WVU study of horizontal gas well drill cuttings and other waste going into landfills provided little useful information, but the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is taking steps to protect landfill workers from potential radiation exposure.

There has been ongoing national discussion about bringing naturally occurring radioactive materials to the surface during horizontal shale drilling and depositing those materials into landfills where they could potentially affect workers and communities and leach into water supplies. West Virginia law requires all drill cuttings to be treated as “special waste” and deposited into approved landfills.

Professor Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, told interim Judiciary Committee members on Sunday that the study team was unable to obtain drill cutting samples from the horizontal Marcellus shale during its 2012 study for several reasons: Hurricane Sandy, lack of time, operator problems and failure of the DEP to select a backup site.

The $266,336 water and waste study did show that flowback water contained alpha and beta particles and radium 226 and 228 above safe drinking water standards. Drilling mud samples also contained various inorganic and organic substances above safe levels — including barium, chromium, nitrate, arsenic, toluene, benzene and others.

Asked what’s next, Ziemkiewicz said further study is needed. Researchers need to determine the best way to take samples, and characterize which of all the potentially hazardous substances pose the real problem.

State Geologist Michael Hohn said a New York study of Marcellus cuttings and waste shows, based on limited data, there is little chance of public exposure and no public health threat, but landfill workers may be at risk and monitoring is needed.

Mike Dorsey, with the DEP, said Pennsylvania is on the cutting edge of studying these issues. It will be doing extensive research in February and publishing the result around June. Given the shortfalls of the West Virginia study, the DEP will be looking to this for insight and guidance.

Scott Mandirola, director of the DEP’s Division of Water and Waste, said Pennsylvania has radiation monitors at its landfill scales. About 1,000 loads – 1 percent of all the drilling material that went into landfills, triggered alarms. That was a total of 15,000 tons of waste, and only 622 tons had levels high enough to reject.

His division, he said, plans to emulate Pennsylvania and set up radiation monitors at all landfill scales. Because the radiation is largely and easily blocked alpha particles and relatively short-range beta particles, “the best thing to do is bury it. But the people handling it need to be protected from overall exposure.” Anything that triggers an alarm will be further examined, and all landfills will have direct access to the DEP for assistance.