Pennsylvania is Discharging Radioactive Fracking Waste Into Rivers As Landfill Leachate, Impacting The Chesapeake Bay & Ohio River Watersheds by Joshua B. Pribanic and Talia Wiener, August 7, 2019, Public Herald
Project: Smoking Gun | Podcast: newsCOUP
But what Wolf can’t see, is that his own Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has allowed radioactive material from fracking waste to be discharged into that River through sewage facilities upstream.
A Public Herald investigation has uncovered that DEP is allowing 14 Sewage Waste Treatment Plants to discharge radioactive fracking waste as landfill leachate into 13 Pennsylvania Waterways. The process DEP created to “treat” and discharge the leachate through sewage plants appears to date as far back as the fracking boom (2009 or longer).
The size of this story is vast and the numbers are overwhelming. The 14 discharge points hit waterways across the Commonwealth.
In the east, the effluent of pollution flows from three facilities upstream of Harrisburg down the Susquehanna River into Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.
In the west 11 facilities — one hitting the Allegheny River from a plant in Johnstown, another reaching the treasured Youghiogheny River — are discharging radioactive fracking waste as landfill leachate into the Ohio River watershed.
At start of 2019, there were 15, not 14, sewage facilities overseen by DEP to send landfill leachate to waterways.
But one facility, the Belle Vernon sewage plant in Fayette County, shut down its leachate intake in May after superintendent Guy Kruppa said it was “killing their bugs.”
When we asked the Department to provide the total annual volume of leachate for each of the 15 facilities, the DEP told Public Herald, “We do not have this information available.”
Dissatisfied with this response, we’ve requested that the Department find out why and how they could not know the amounts. An official response is pending.
Our own review of sewage discharge data from the Belle Vernon Plant says the total amount of landfill leachate potentially released to these 15 facilities, on the low end, is 547,500,000 million gallons per year (36,500,000 million gallons annually per facility), depending on rainfall. On the high end we’re looking at 1.6 billion gallons of leachate per year.
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An average of 800,000 tons of fracking waste a year is indicated to be sent to landfills in Pennsylvania based on industry data reported to DEP for 2019.***
TENORM can be in the waste stream of pipe scale, produced waters or flowback water, sludge, used water filtration sleeves (radioactive socks), and contaminated equipment.
Those radionuclides in the waste are water soluble. So when it rains, they pass into the leachate and make it radioactive.
Guy Kruppa [that sewage authority superintendent who led the charge at Belle Vernon] provided Public Herald with his independent test results that detected 8 pCi/L (Picocuries per liter) of radium (Ra) 226 and 228 in one sample of their discharge. The leachate straight from the landfill tested at 50 pCi/L. The maximum contaminant level (MCL) for radium in drinking water is 5 pCi/L.
Kruppa says their one-time sample of radium is without a doubt on the low end. The reduced radium in the discharge is not necessarily a reduction of radium but rather a dilution.
If you convert Liters to Gallons (3.785 L/gal) — 8 pCi/L would be 30.28 pCi/gal. If the total discharge from the 15 sewage plants is 575,500,000 million gallons annually then the potential Ra (226 and 228) would be 17,426,140,000 pCi/gal — or 17.4 mCi (millicuries).
The results indicate billions of gallons of untested, unregulated radionuclides discharged each year to waters of the Commonwealth under the supervision of DEP.****
“Once the effluent is being disposed into the river, the radioactive element will sink or absorb into sediment at the bottom of the river at the disposal site and start to accumulate there,” Vengosh said. His own studies in Pennsylvania found high concentrations of radionuclides in river sediment.
Not only would radium in leachate get into the water untreated in these instances, it would also “kill the bugs” at the sewage treatment plant and force the discharge to release additional contamination to the waterway.
“Once again, waste from the fracking industry is winding up in our drinking water,” Dr. John Stolz, the Director of Duquesne University’s Center for Environmental Research and Education, said to Public Herald.
“Sanitary landfills are no place for drilling wastes that contain toxic metals, organics, and radioactive materials. The leachate from these landfills is so toxic it kills the microbes whose job it is to treat it. The amount of total dissolved solids in the discharge water I tested at Belle Vernon was almost three times the legal limit. There were high levels of bromide — (and the landfill knew I was coming so the discharge flow had been shut off suggesting my readings would have been much higher) — all of which impacted the Charleroi drinking water plant downstream.”
“You have a giant loophole in the DEP. You have Waste Management on one side and you have Clean Water on the other. And running right through the middle is pretty much their leachate. It’s unregulated and no pretreatment was required.
“But the DEP didn’t go to them and say they had to do something about it.
“I have lost a lot of respect for that institution [for the DEP]. We rely on this state agency to protect our source water, to protect our resources, to protect our environment. And this is their solution?
DEP said they have conducted multiple inspections at the facilities and found that they were in compliance with permit and state regulations. [Public Herald has no evidence that DEP performed a single test to qualify this statement.]
Kruppa says DEP’s story is wrong. Kruppa was hired to the sewage plant in March 2018. He said the guy he replaced told him to take this landfill thing head on, and that’s when he started to find problems right away in the system.
Kruppa told Public Herald that DEP tried to make a deal. They told him the Department would hold off on any violations to the sewage plant so long as they continued to accept the leachate. And Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill would pay a regular fine for sending it.
DEP’s story says when they found “no evidence or significant impact to the river,” they asked Guy Kruppa to continue accepting the leachate from the landfill. Kruppa says, “The radium 226 and 228 was above drinking water standards and being discharged. How’s that okay? I told them we couldn’t treat effectively because we had bugs die off.
“If you weren’t talking to Howard Dunn, the DEP inspector, or getting a statement from Howard Dunn, then that tells you how ineffective their communication is. I told Dunn, he came and did an inspection. He knew of it and they also knew of the radium levels. I told them we are non-compliant in a hard copy, and couldn’t satisfy the NPDES requirements.”
In a final disturbing statement from Kruppa, he says he mistakenly told the landfill when they tested for their NPDES permit, so the landfill would shut off their leachate pipe for a few days until after the test was completed. [Like Encana shutting off their noisiest problem compressor during noise testing and offering baseline water testing after illegally frac’ing Rosebud’s drinking water supply]
But the story doesn’t end there. The Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General (AG) has now taken over the Belle Vernon case.
Public Herald learned that Kruppa and an operator at the plant have recently spoken with two agents from the AG who mainly wanted to know about DEP. [Wouldn’t it be something if there was an authority in Canada to protect our drinking water and investigate the obvious corruption and filth at the AER and Alberta Environment and other “regulators” in other provinces! Canada has nothing but enablers, all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada]
Kruppa’s recounting of the 2.5 hour interview confirmed what Public Herald has been told by sources following our 2017 report on oil and gas complaint investigations, that the DEP is being investigated by the AG.
Our own expert source Dr. John Stolz, who worked with Public Herald closely on reviewing DEP’s conduct for reports, was grand juried by the AG in June. He says the DEP was shown “no mercy.”
Back on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, Joey Bacon is still perched on the bank, fishing pole cast far into the water. 100 feet to his left, a discharge from the Williamsport Sewage Authority is pumping out effluent at a rate of hundreds of thousands of gallons a day. Some of that effluent comes from Eureka Resources, who treats fracking wastewater, and none of the effluent is tested for radionuclides at either facility.
Like Joey, thousands of kids spend their free time around these leachate-laden rivers fishing, swimming and playing around with friends. The expectation is Governor Tom Wolf’s DEP is keeping those rivers safe to swim.
But no one, not the DEP, not the EPA, not the watchdog groups, are testing the rivers for radiation.
“Even dedicated brine treatment plants aren’t doing enough to deal with the radiation problem,” Dr. Stolz explains. “On a recent tour of the Williamsport facility, our group was told they test for radiation using a hand held gamma detector held six inches from the truck. That’s not going to protect the public.”
The DEP relies on systems like the one Stolz mentions to test gamma on the outside of trucks, but Radium 226 and 228 are alpha, they release beta materials that don’t pass through metal. In these cases, holding a device next to a metal truck is not going to tell you if it’s “hot.”
“You have raw sewage and radioactivity spewing into the river,” said Justin Nobel who’s written extensively on this topic for Rolling Stone. “In a well run state that cares about their people and values health and science, they would immediately test every single community on a river or creek or waterway where there’s a treatment plant or a discharge point of potential oil and gas radioactivity. That should happen right away, and I don’t think that has happened.”
“It’s shocking to think about the millions of people who have potentially come into contact with contaminated water,” Youghiogheny Riverkeeper Eric Harder told Public Herald in response to this report. “Many who assume the waterway is safe for recreation.
“The DEP has known that fracking waste contains highly radioactive elements like radium at concentrations more than 1000 times the drinking water standard. Yet, they have failed to properly safeguard the public against the impacts of this toxic wastewater.”
An Earthworks report published on June 18, 2019 written by Melissa Troutman, who is also co-founder and executive director of the Public Herald, found that regulations on oil and gas waste management have not improved in the past few years and in many cases have worsened.
20 minutes downstream from the East Washington Joint Authority Sewage Treatment Plant, a facility accepting radioactive landfill leachate, sits Canon-McMillan High School. Within the past ten years, students at the high school and the other eight schools in the district have been diagnosed with various cancers at an alarming rate.
Each year, 200-250 children in the United States are diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, six students within the school district were diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma since 2008. Three students have died.
In April 2019, the Pennsylvania Department of Health released a 17-page report stating that there had not been a cancer cluster in Washington county, and that the rates of the sarcoma were not statistically significant. The Post-Gazette since documented “up to 67 childhood, teenage and young adult cancers over the past decade in Washington, Westmoreland, Fayette and Greene counties.”
Knowing the East Washington Joint Authority Sewage Treatment Plant is accepting landfill leachate from fracking waste and discharging to Chartiers Creek near the school puts a new spotlight on the problem.
“Well drilling waste typically contains a number of toxic pollutants such as radium and other radioactive materials, heavy metals, and arsenic. These are known carcinogens that can cause serious and dire health consequences for years to come,” says Raina Rippel, Director, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.
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