Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection changes rules for oil and gas sludge at landfills

January 28th, 2015

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection changes rules for oil and gas sludge at landfills

January 28, 2015 12:00 AM
By Anya Litvak / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A change in the rules for landfills accepting fracking fluid sludges could mean higher prices for disposal, and more oil and gas waste going out of state.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, concerned that concentrated frack fluid waste wasn’t being adequately diluted at state landfills over the past several years, instituted a new policy starting Jan. 1.
Annual limits for accepting low-level radioactive waste from oil and gas operations were changed to monthly caps to ensure that such waste was properly mixed with non-radioactive waste at a ratio of 1:50.
The DEP told landfills that, after reviewing disposal patterns, it found spikes during certain times of year, which undermined its dilution strategy for such waste.
Landfills that accept this radioactive waste are governed by a formula spelled out in a spreadsheet that takes into consideration the total tonnage and the concentration of radioactive elements.
In a letter to landfills dated Dec. 29, the DEP added another variable to that formula. For all fracking fluid sludges resulting from concentrating flowback water, there is now a multiplier of three embedded into the spreadsheet. So if a landfill accepts 1 ton of sludge, it will count as 3 tons.
“The isotope of concern here is radon,” said Kenneth Reisinger, director of DEP’s bureau of waste management.
Radon, which in high enough concentrations is a leading cause of lung cancer and is particularly plentiful in Pennsylvania, is a decay product of radium, which is found in oil and gas waste.
The DEP sets its limits for landfills with that in mind. Specifically, it works backwards from a widely accepted recommendation that human exposure to radiation should be below 100 millirems per year and that no more than 25 percent of that should come from any particular source.
So, using a 25 millirem per year threshold for radon, the DEP calculates how much low-level radioactive waste would be acceptable to mix into a landfill so that 1,000 years from now, a person living in house built on that landfill wouldn’t exceed the recommended exposure rate.
The immediate impact, however, might be that oil and gas facilities have fewer disposal options in the state, some landfill operators say.
Seneca Landfill in Mars has had no problem not exceeding its annual limit of such waste in prior years, said Ed Vogel, vice president of Vogel Disposal Inc. But the monthly limits and the sludge multiplier may change the equation.
Seneca accepts frack fluid sludge from several wastewater treatment plants. Mr. Vogel said he’s already made phone calls to his competitors asking for pricing in the event that he needs to send what he cannot accept to another facility.
Because transportation costs are a large factor in disposal, he said, “For customers, their prices are going to go up probably substantially. It’s supply and demand.”
DEP data shows hundreds of thousands of tons of frack fluid waste are disposed of at Pennsylvania landfills annually.
The amount appears to have peaked in 2011, when 449,573 tons were slated to enter state landfills, but 2014 was in close second. During the first 10 months of the year, 430,317 tons were headed for landfills.
It’s not clear yet if the new limits will have the effect of curbing the amount of such waste going into state landfills or if, as suggested by the Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association, there is plenty of capacity at such facilities to handle it.
“I believe some landfills will probably meet their monthly allocation, which will cause generators to reroute waste to other available facilities,” Mr. Reisinger said. “But we have almost 50 landfills operating in Pennsylvania.” Of those, just more than a dozen regularly accept low-level radioactive waste from oil and gas operations, he said. “It may force material out of state, but I think it’s premature to conclude that,” he said.

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455 412-263-1455.

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