Illegal radioactive waste endangers Estill, everyone downstream

Jillean McCommons
Jillean McCommons

I walked into work one day in February to the news that radioactive waste from oil and gas drilling had been dumped in the Advanced Disposal Blue Ridge Landfill, less than three miles from my job as a librarian at the Estill County Public Library.

The landfill, owned by a Florida company, is located across the street from a middle school and a high school. I had made presentations on library literacy at the middle school just days before. Between presentation I sat in my car with the windows rolled down. I walked around the campus. I washed my hands in the bathroom. I witnessed hundreds of kids eating lunch in the cafeteria.

After the news broke, I couldn’t help but wonder about their safety and my own. I knew radioactive waste carried cancer-causing agents. Like a lot of people in the immediate area, I was upset and afraid. I wanted answers.

Since then, reports on the fracking waste should be alarming to everyone.

Between July and November 2015, 1,600 to 1,800 tons of radioactive waste from Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania were illegally dumped in Estill. This is just what we know.

Landfill liners have a half-life of 30 to 40 years. The fracking waste contains radium which has a half-life of 1,600 years. It’s estimated that the radioactivity in the waste is 400 times as high as figures the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would determine to be safe. This means that as the liners break down, the radium will leak into Kentucky waterways at extremely hazardous levels.

Leakage happened at the Maxey Flats facility in Fleming County in the 1970s. It happened then at a facility designated for the dumping of radioactive waste. Imagine what can happen at Advanced Disposal, a facility not equipped to handle radioactive waste.

A worker recently died after falling into a sludge pit at the landfill. Walter Jackson, a 56-year-old Madison County man, was pulled out by his coworkers, showered and then died of a heart attack shortly afterward. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has plans to test his clothes, and doctors plan to run blood tests.

You just have to ask: Did the sludge pit contain radioactive materials? Was the heart attack precipitated by the presence of radioactive waste?

Until we know the answers, it’s time to shut the landfill down — out of respect for Jackson, out of respect for the health of other employees, out of respect for the children across the street trying to learn in a safe environment. Frankly, we need the EPA in Estill County.

Not convinced? Let’s talk about water.

We know the life of the liners is not long enough to protect us from leakage. What impact will tons and tons of radioactive waste have on the Kentucky River decades from now? This is a major concern to the people in Estill County but it should also be a concern for any municipality downstream. Imagine the river that flows through the seat of our state government contaminated with radioactive waste?

I probably don’t need to point out the relationship the Kentucky River has with the Ohio River. If the liners dissolve, which they will, and the waste leaks, the ensuing catastrophe will be horrific. If this happens without federal intervention, it will mean that our government underestimated the effect one landfill’s negligence can have on thousands of Americans.

It will also mean that our government underestimates the harm fracking has already done and will continue to do if we don’t ban the practice . The state attorney general is investigating the waste disposal with the potential for fines. But we must remind our local, state and national governments of their responsibility to protect us.

If you’re a concerned citizen, there is a group forming. Find out more by emailing me at saygoodthingsaboutestillcounty


Jillean McCommons, a librarian, poet and banjo player, lives in Berea.