Pennsylvania landfills, including those that accept solid fracking waste, will soon have to test their leachate for radioactive contaminants on a quarterly basis.
Leachate, which forms when rainwater seeps through the material in the landfill, is collected and sent to treatment plants. While landfill operators are required to conduct quarterly tests for various contaminants, the new regulations will add radium-226 and radium-228 to the list of substances.
Radium is a naturally occurring radioactive material common in oil and gas waste. During unconventional well drilling, finely ground pieces of rock are brought to the surface, collected, and trucked to landfills. These cuttings, as well as other waste, can contain radioactive elements.
“We take seriously our responsibility and duty as an environmental steward,” said Gov. Tom Wolf in a press release. “This additional requirement will improve public confidence that public drinking water and our precious natural resources are being appropriately protected.”
In 2019, court action was taken to stop the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill from sending its leachate to a nearby treatment plant after the plant saw its pollution levels rise and determined that the contamination was coming from the landfill leachate, where cuttings from natural gas well drilling were accepted. The leachate, which was contaminated with diesel fuel, phenols, possible carcinogens and other chemicals used in gas drilling and fracking, was damaging the biological sewage treatment process and resulting in poorly treated water being discharged into the Monongahela River, a major drinking water source. The state Department of Environmental Protection issued a $24,000 civil penalty to the landfill.
Tests run on the leachate were well below federal action levels. In addition, a 2016 DEP study of Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (TENORM) found that there were no significant differences between landfills that accept oil and gas waste and those that do not, and testing results were below federal effluent limits for radium.
“Pennsylvanians living next to landfills and in the shadow of fracking wells have a constitutional right to clean and air and pure water, and the improved monitoring and promised analysis by DEP is a step in the right direction,” said Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who last year issued a grand jury report that found “systemic failure” by the DEP and state Department of Health in overseeing fracking and protecting public health.
DEP said it will take longer-range steps based on the data reported by landfills if needed to protect public health and the environment.