How fracking is turning America’s great rivers radioactive and spreading cancer risks to anyone exposed


It sounds almost too impossible to believe: Radioactive, toxic waste — ounce for ounce, one of the most dangerous substances known to man — dumped into major sewage plants, screwing up the works and then flowing into some of America’s most scenic and important waterways, passing through highly populated areas.

But that is exactly what is happening across the state of Pennsylvania, according to an explosive new report in the Press Herald that identifies at least 14 sewage treatment plants accepting hazardous leachate from oil-and-natural-gas-industry landfills and faults state regulatory officials for looking the other way.

The Press Herald’s reporting also identifies a 15th sewage treatment plant – the Belle Vernon facility in Fayette County in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania – that recently stopped accepting the landfill leachate because the wastes were off killing the bugs that treat everyday sewage, causing the plant to pollute the Monongahela River. Three intakes for public drinking water systems are downstream from that plant.

“The leachate is killing the bugs that digest our sewage, and the testing we did shows contaminants indicative of the landfill accepting drilling and fracking waste,” Guy Kruppa, the sewage plant superintendent, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in May after his local sewage board voted to stop accepting landfill wastes. He said the position of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which said it would fine the landfill for violating pollution laws but insisted the sewage plant keep accepting the leachate anyway, was an ethical riddle.

The Post-Gazette said the landfill leachate — a byproduct of the decade-long boom in fracking for oil and natural gas in Pennsylvania — contains high levels of ammonia, total suspended solids, and a host of chemicals and compounds consistent with shale gas drilling and fracking waste materials, including volatile organic compounds, magnesium, barium, phenols and oil and grease.

But this summer’s investigation by the Press Herald demonstrates that neither state officials nor sewage treatment plant operators are really doing an adequate job of monitoring radioactive contamination — a common byproduct in the waste that’s pulled from far underground during the fracking process — that’s in the landfill leachate these facilities are accepting. It estimates the total amount of fracking leachate trucked to and dumped at Pennsylvania sewage treatment plants could run as high as 1.6 billion gallons a year. This material is definitely a hazardous substance under the federal Superfund law; any exposure is highly dangerous to human health.

Dr. Avner Vengosh of Duke University, who has extensively studied radioactivity in fracking waste, told the Press-Herald that local sewage authorities have no business treating this waste, which contains high levels of the radionuclides radium-226 and radium-228. “In leachate [from fracking waste], I would expect to see salts, metals, and radioactive elements,” he said. “None of those would be retained or removed through conventional wastewater treatment plants.”

This is an important story for several reasons. Broadly it points to the breakdown in regulatory authority when it comes to both the handling and the ultimate dumping of leachate, the liquids created when rainwater flows through heavily contaminated landfills. There are similarities between the Pennsylvania situation and a current environmental problem in Tennessee.

In the Decatur County case, a municipal landfill was accepting large quantities of hazardous aluminum smelting waste, and the leachate was producing high levels of ammonia. Just as in the Pennsylvania fracking waste situation, this leachate was shipped for a time to a sewage treatment plant, where it was also killing the bugs and causing water pollution from poorly treated waste. The Decatur County wastes have also leached directly from the landfill into nearby streams through groundwater.

The fact that we’re having such a high-level debate over something that should be an open-and-shut case — that leachate from America’s ever-growing network of landfills is increasingly polluting our waterways, and our regulators need legal authority to do something about it — reveals the insidious nature of the problem.

This nation’s growing slag heap of toxic goo – from industrial wastes, the surge in fracking, and even from household garbage – is creating billions of gallons of leachate that are fouling our waterways, and state, federal and local officials either don’t know what to do about the problem or simply don’t want to offend their Big Business patrons.

This isn’t rocket science. Questions such as whether leachate is a solid or liquid waste, whether it should be classified as hazardous or whether it should be regulated at the landfill or at a sewage treatment plant seem pretty trivial compared to simply stopping radioactive pollution and untreated sewage from flowing down America’s great rivers. It’s time for more government bodies to follow the lead of the water-treatment board in Fayette County, Pa., and proclaim we won’t allow our waterways to get dumped on anymore.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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