Quarterly testing mandate falls short of need

HARRISBURG, July 27, 2021 – The Wolf administration announced Monday it would soon require all Pennsylvania landfills to conduct quarterly testing for radiological contaminants, nearly six years after the Department of Environmental Protection produced a report on TENORM. State Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny, and state Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, said they strongly support this requirement, but remain concerned due to the lack of details on the testing methods.

The statement issued by the DEP states that this order will require Pennsylvania landfills, including ones that accept unconventional oil and gas waste, to test leachate, a liquid generated during waste composition, for radium 226 and 228 on a quarterly basis. However, it fails to mention any testing requirements for other radioactive components found in oil and gas waste that are also harmful to human health.

Unlike the legislation Innamorato has sponsored, and companion legislation sponsored by Muth in the state Senate, which would close the hazardous waste loophole in state and federal law for the oil and gas industry, this order falls short of requiring adequate testing. If passed, Innamorato and Muth’s legislation would help keep harmful toxins out of Pennsylvania’s waterways and drinking water supplies across the state. Muth and Innamorato have put forward two other bills to fully close the hazardous waste loophole by repealing a 30-year-old exemption from testing hazardous waste for the gas and oil industry (H.B. 1354, S.B. 644) and updating the Solid Waste Management Act to hold the oil and gas industry to the same waste regulations as other industries (HB1354, SB645).

“For decades, radioactive waste has been shuffled untracked from the oil and gas industry into our water sources. Quarterly testing at landfills that are not equipped to treat radioactive waste is an important step to tracking the impact of the hazardous waste loophole,” Innamorato said. “Reports, including those conducted by the oil and gas industry, show that the materials contained in this waste pose a threat to the health and safety of workers and the surrounding community. This move will only tell us what we already know, but it will give the Pennsylvania communities an opportunity to be informed of the harmful contaminants entering their backyards. While this move does add a level of transparency, it does nothing to prevent this or protect the public’s health.”

“It’s about damn time!” Muth said. “The DEP and the administration have known for a long time that the hazardous waste loophole exists, and that the radioactive waste sitting in more than 30 landfills that accept fracking waste is leaching into our groundwater supply and waterways of the commonwealth, and they did nothing other than deny the harmful impacts.”

The DEP’s statement on this required testing does not mention any changes to its testing techniques. Currently, the testing used by the Pennsylvania DEP, as well as landfill, sewage plant, and oil and gas operators only detects the gamma decay radiation in waste, which paints an incomplete picture of the potential for harmful exposure. Innamorato and Muth say a high-quality, evidence-based testing approach to accurately assess the levels of radioactive contamination should include testing methods that also detect alpha and beta radiation, in addition to gamma. Radium 226 decays to other radioactive elements including radon, polonium and lead. Radon, an alpha emitter, is the second-leading cause of lung cancer.

“This is welcome news from the governor’s office. The PA DEP’s own 2016 report on TENORMs showed that produced water from unconventional wells has high concentrations of radioactive radium,” said Dr. John Stolz, director of Duquesne’s Center for Environmental Research and Education. “As radium decays it produces other radioactive elements, increasing the levels of radioactivity. That this waste is being disposed of at sanitary landfills should be a concern for all.”

Government leaders in the United States have known about these harms since a 1987 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report to Congress, titled “The Management of Wastes From the Exploration, Development, and Production of Crude Oil, Natural Gas, and Geothermal Energy.” In that report, EPA revealed that radioactive materials, such as cancer-causing radium, had been found in wastewater from the oil and gas industry. Since then, other scientific studies have confirmed these findings.

This announcement by the Wolf administration underscores the fact that oil and gas waste can contain radioactive elements and other toxins that harm water, land and health. Regular leachate testing and reporting are critical to catching the problem, but Innamorato and Muth say further action is also needed to prevent it from happening in the first place. They are calling on Pennsylvania legislators and the DEP to close the loophole that allows oil and gas operators to put their waste in landfills at all, saying radioactive waste needs to be classified, handled and treated as such.

The Center for Coalfield Justice, a grassroots organization of community members working to see that people who live with the daily impacts of fossil fuel extraction are treated with respect, adds that the burden of testing still falls upon the taxpaying public.

“This is a good first step, as it will help to provide important information to the public; however, it still keeps the burden of testing waterways for hazardous waste on us, the taxpayers. It is imperative that the oil and gas industry bear the cost of ensuring clean waterways. Protecting health and taxpayer money can only happen if and when Governor Wolf closes the oil and gas waste loophole.”

Both the House and Senate bills introduced by Innamorato and Muth continue to sit in the House and Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committees, awaiting further action by the majority chairs.