Is fracking dirt too radioactive for local landfills?
Drill cuttings are the piles of earthen waste that gas drillers remove as they dig out new wells. Simply put, "drill cuttings" are dirt.
But, depending on who you ask, the discarded dirt is either dangerously radioactive or reasonably safe.
The Steuben County municipal landfill is on track to start accepting drill cuttings from Pennsylvania in the fall. As such, it's the latest battleground over the future of hydrofracking in the Southern Tier.
On Monday night, more than 200 people turned out to get the dirt on both sides of the story.
Vince Spagnoletti is Steuben County's Commissioner of Public Works. He's leading the charge for dumping drill cuttings at the local landfill. Spagnoletti says the cuttings have been shown to be safe - and that Steuben County should work out the kinks now, in case more dirt starts flowing soon.
"If they drill in New York state, in Steuben County there's going to be hundreds of thousands of tons of this material," said Spagnoletti. "None of us want it spread over the countryside."
While hydrofracking is still under moratorium in New York, Spagnoletti says his landfill will become one of a handful in the Southern Tier that currently accepts cuttings from across state lines. Steuben County's would be the first, however, that is publicly operated. Spagnoletti says the state's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has already signed off on the project.
Marvin Resnikoff is a physicist and radioactive waste consultant (and Huffington Post contributor) based in Vermont. He spoke at Monday's forum, and says local residents have reason to be concerned.
According to Resnikoff, the water contained in the cuttings (up to 20 percent of solid waste can be water, he says) is the main problem.
Resnikoff says water-infused cuttings can contain high levels of radium, which could potentially be radioactive enough to cause health and environmental problems down the line.
"The radioactive material has a half-life of 1,600 years," said Resnikoff. "A lot can happen in 1,600 years - you can imagine. So it represents a hazard, and it represents a liability for the county as well."
Resnikoff says the radiation risks of dumping drill cuttings in municipal landfills haven't been sufficiently studied. At Monday's forum he urged Steuben County officials to implement stringent monitoring techniques.
- ProPublica looks at the issue of radium-laced fracking wastewater in the Marcellus Shale.
An earlier version of the caption said the photo was taken at a gas drilling site. It was actually taken at a water well drilling site.