Citizens should have a seat at the table as state officials negotiate a plan to protect the public from radioactive drilling waste that was transported from outside Kentucky and illegally dumped less than a mile from the Kentucky River at a solid-waste landfill in Estill County.
Members of the newly formed Concerned Citizens of Estill County, who say they feel left in the dark and frightened for the future, are right to demand a part in talks between state environmental regulators and Advanced Disposal, the Florida-based owner of the Blue Ridge Landfill.
Multiply their fears and anger many times over, and you get a sense of what happens when nobody plans for how to clean up after an energy extraction boom.
New drilling technologies that sparked increased oil and natural gas production from shale also produce a much greater volume of waste. The unsavory leftovers include dirt, water, pipe and equipment that is contaminated with varying levels of radioactivity from contact with shale and rock brought to the surface by drilling. The waste also is contaminated with chemicals, both naturally occurring and those mixed with water and sand and applied at high pressure to fracture or frack the shale and liberate the gas and oil.
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Like coal ash from power plants, the federal government does not classify drilling waste as hazardous and leaves its regulation to the states.
A coalition of environmental groups has sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeking tougher regulation of drilling wastes that pose a threat to public health or the environment. It shouldn’t take a lawsuit for the EPA to get moving on this.
Looming north and east of Kentucky are millions of gallons and mountains of fracking waste. Kentucky bans the importation of radioactive waste, except under a compact with Illinois. Such waste is supposed to be shipped to specially designed landfills. But that didn’t stop companies in other states from hiring a Kentucky company based in Morgan County, Advanced TENORM, to dispose of sludge in Kentucky that was too radioactive to be allowed in Pennsylvania or West Virginia.
The citizens who have organized in Estill County to demand answers are justified in their misgivings, considering the sluggish response by Kentucky regulators after being notified in July 2015, a year ago, that West Virginia had approved a plan for radioactive sludge to be dumped in Estill County. For the next six months, there was no apparent follow-up by Kentucky’s Radiation Health Branch, part of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, or the Division of Waste Management in the Energy and Environment Cabinet.
Not until February, seven months after first being alerted, did Kentucky regulators put landfills on notice that radioactive shipments could be heading their way. By then, almost 2,000 tons of radioactive material — 47 loads, according to a state citation — had been unloaded in Estill County, where it reportedly was spread, like municipal garbage, as landfill cover. Documents accompanying the shipments describe the waste as suitable for disposal as regular solid waste.
The state also cited Green Valley Landfill in Greenup County for accepting 26 loads or 368.5 tons of radioactive waste.
There’s no threat to the public now, according to state testing, although workers who handled the material were at risk.
The level of radioactivity in the waste is low, similar to what’s normally in the air in some parts of Kentucky, but it has a half-life of 1,600 years while landfill liners are warranted to last 25 years and landfills are required to be monitored for groundwater contamination for only 30 years after closing.
The hodgepodge of state oversight, the dearth of federal regulation and the lack of safe disposal alternatives guarantee that other places have become unwitting hosts to radioactive waste and other poisons left from drilling. Maybe Estill County residents are lucky to have discovered the risk that was illegally dumped in their midst. They darn sure have a right to be part of planning for how to protect themselves and their descendants from possible ill effects. And, by involving the public on the front end, Gov. Matt Bevin and Energy and Environment Secretary Charles Snavely may spare the state a citizens lawsuit after a settlement is announced.