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Regulating radioactive fracking waste in Ohio
Legislature mandates classification change for some low level radioactive material from shale drilling

Tim Rudell
Ohio law now specifically allows low-level radioactive waste from fracking to go into regular landfills.
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The mention of “radioactivity” in nearly any context grabs attention.  But a change in how some low-level radioactive waste is labeled in Ohio has changed the kind of attention it gets.  WKSU’s Tim Rudell reports.

LISTEN: The definition of fracking waste is key

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After radioactivity, exposure — how much radiation hits us for how long--may be the next biggest attention grabbing word among things nuclear.  And, it’s where the regulation of radioactive materials comes in. 

The likes of nuclear fuel rods -- which can kill, and quickly — are under federal regulation.  At the other end of the spectrum, low-level, naturally occurring radioactive material -- brine that comes out of the ground in shale drilling for example -- is left to the states to regulate.

State oversight
Asked why state regulation allows most low-level radioactive waste from hydraulic fracturing in Ohio’s Utica shale fields to go into landfills, Tom Stewart of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association says it's because the radiation level is far below being dangerous.

“A Health Department person told the Kasich administration that you could stand beside a brine truck with a hundred barrels of brine in it for 250 days and you still wouldn’t be exposed to more radiation than in a common dental X-ray.”

Those are the official acronyms for low-level radioactive material: NORM--Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material -- and TENORM, Technically Enhanced NORM. That means its natural radiation has been concentrated by human activity, like recycling drilling mud during fracking operations. And TENORM has to be disposed of in specially built landfills, with dramatically higher user fees.

The question for Tom Stewart actually arose from the budget bill made law in July. Within it, lawmakers not only addressed radioactive waste issues in drilling, they mandated that all drill cuttings — the dirt and broken rock from fracking — be automatically classified NORM.

Terry Lodge is a lawyer for several Ohio environmental groups. He calls that a semantic sidestep and a weakening of real regulation.

“By just changing the name, a word game, the Legislature is making is so that where about 20 percent of what comes out of the ground with deep drilling was formerly considered NORM, now 80 percent to 85 percent will be classified that way -- nd exempted from nearly all regulation.”

Economic development
Lawmakers who supported the change say it was to make regulation simpler by recognizing that all cuttings from drilling are from naturally occurring materials.  But, Lodge says legislators were just trying to push the shale boom by making it cheaper for drillers to dump the massive solid waste from modern horizontal drilling in regular landfills instead of special ones, and by doing away with waste reporting and tracking requirements in the process.

State regulators say “not so.”  Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Gas and Oil Director Richard Simmers says uncontaminated drill cuttings — which he says most of the cuttings are -- would not trigger special disposal requirements in any event. So there is no cost savings issue. And, as for reporting and tracking, he contends that the requirements are even greater with the new rules.

ODNR focus
Attorney Lodge and others who oppose the state’s approach also say that the Legislature focused enforcement power with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, where drillers have a long relationship with regulators. They say the other two state agencies involved in regulating radioactive material, Ohio EPA and the Ohio Department of Health, have been shunted aside by what he calls the “undisputed alpha of fracking regulation.”

Ohio EPA Chief Scott Nally counters that his organization is more heavily involved in regulating radioactive waste than ever because of the three-way set up state lawmakers created in which the agencies collaborate.

The questions
Multi-headed or otherwise, Lodge says there is skepticism among his clients and scientists in the environmentalist community over whether Ohio’s NORM and TENORM disposal strategy will be effective at all. He says about 6 percent of current modern landfills are leaking. And that in approximately 100 years’ time they will all leak.

“We’re  just kicking the can down the road…and not very far."

Ohio currently has 39 licensed landfills in operation. 

Listener Comments:

More studies should be completed to see exactly which isotopes are being concentrated by drilling and fracking practices and procedures that are already in place (Ex.waste regulations for nuclear power plants)and the lessons learned to protect our citizens from these hazards should remain the same from whatever the source of the radioactive materials are.

Posted by: Steve B (Wisconsin) on December 19, 2013 11:12AM
There is almost no data at all on radium levels in Utica shale. Ohio Department of Health and EPA have not done studies that have representative sampling done to verify the claims that radioactive content is very low and not to worry about. Quite the opposite, really! One of the studies found radium at levels 179 times higher than the state's drinking water limit. This was found in drilling muds, which are mixed with drill cuttings when they come up out of the ground. Is this too small too worry about? not for me or my kids or the neighbors of ALum Creek, where this stuff is going to be dumped at in COlumbus.

Posted by: GregP (Columbus) on December 11, 2013 9:12AM
of course, ODNR is going to enourage out of state tankers of radioactive waste to be dumped here...ODNR is paid 20 cents/barrel for out-of-state flow-back waste, which encourages them to quadruple their profits by making Ohio a waste dump...

maybe we oughtta ask pennsylvania, who's had more experience with this issue than we have, why they've deemed it too radioactive to be dumped there...

Posted by: rj sigmund (NE Ohio) on December 10, 2013 8:12AM
Perhaps standing by a brine truck won't cause immediate exposure to radiation, but fracking brine leaching from a landfill into the surrounding area will. Being extra careful about what we put into the ground and how can never be the wrong road to take.
However, our legislators seem more and more to be preoccupied with the money in their pockets rather then the health of their citizens.

Posted by: Ani K (Chardon, OH) on December 10, 2013 7:12AM
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