A Westmoreland County landfill was fined by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources for improperly disposing of liquid leachate contaminated with gas drilling waste.
Under a consent agreement announced Feb. 18, the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill in Rostraver Township, must pay a $24,000 civil penalty and undertake corrective actions to minimize the amount of leachate and to install equipment to treat and evaporate the leachate.
Leachate is primarily rainwater that soaks through the landfill contents, picking up contamination. It was collected and piped to the Belle Vernon Municipal Authority’s treatment plant, and then discharged into the Monongahela River, which is a source of drinking water for residents in four counties.
The consent agreement also allows the landfill to temporarily continue to truck its leachate to other wastewater treatment facilities while it installs equipment to treat it.
The municipal authority in spring 2018 began to see levels of pollution in its discharge rise, and determined that the contamination was coming from the landfill, where cuttings from natural gas well drilling were accepted. Cuttings, finely ground pieces of rock, can contain radioactive elements that are naturally occurring, as well as other chemicals and pollutants used in the drilling process, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The municipal authority determined that the landfill was sending more than double the amount of leachate allowed to the treatment plant, which according to court documents was contaminated with diesel fuel, phenols, possible carcinogens and other chemicals used in gas drilling and fracking.
The leachate was damaging the biological sewage treatment process and resulting in poorly treated water being discharged into the Mon River. The municipal authority decided to stop accepting the leachate, although the state Department of Environmental Protection had urged it to continue over concerns about continuity of service and even proposed an arrangement for the landfill to pay any fines. According to court documents, the volume of leachate rendered the plant’s treatment ineffective and it was acting “simply as a pass-through” for the contaminated water being discharged into the Mon River.
The district attorneys of Fayette County, where the municipal authority is located, and Washington County, which has numerous communities that get their water from the river, in May went to court over the discharges and a judge issued an injunction temporarily halting the flow.
Once it was unable to dispose of the leachate at the Belle Vernon Municipal Authority, it was forced to truck it to four treatment and disposal facilities in Pennsylvania and Ohio. However, the landfill did not apply for a modification of its permit, which did not allow trucking.
The district attorneys who sought the injunction also referred the matter to the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, which is now separately investigating whether any criminal conduct occurred.