The illegal shipment into Kentucky of radioactive waste from oil and gas fracking operations and the illegal dumping of the out-of-state waste in at least two Kentucky landfills is so far producing more questions than answers.
One question, raised by Anya Litvak’s recent reporting in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is why Kentucky regulators failed to respond proactively to block shipments in mid-2015 when notified by West Virginia regulators of plans to truck the waste from a Fairmont, W. Va. processor to Kentucky.
An official with the Radiation Health Branch of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services informed a West Virginia official that Kentucky law strictly forbids importation of such waste.
But the shipments came to Kentucky anyway. There apparently was no follow up on Kentucky’s end until January, when the Division of Waste Management in the Cabinet for Energy and Environment was tipped off and confirmed that radioactive fracking leftovers had ended up in landfills in Estill and Greenup counties. The public didn’t learn of the illegal dumping until late February.
Since then environmental officials have cited the two landfills for accepting the material and Attorney General Andy Beshear has launched an investigation.
A key focus is a company, Advanced Tenorm Services, based in the Morgan County seat of West Liberty that operated a facility in Ashland where the material was processed by being diluted and solidified before being trucked to the landfills. The landfill operators say they were kept in the dark about the true nature of the shipments.
Current science suggests there is some cancer risk from any exposure to radiation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The immediate risk would be to workers and others who were exposed to the material at the Ashland facility, the landfills or points between.
But no landfill in Kentucky is designed to contain even low-level radioactive waste, such as that produced by nuclear medicine or oil and gas drilling. Regular landfill liners block leakage for 30 or 40 years. The radioactive waste in the Estill landfill has a half-life of 1,600 years.
Kentucky learned all too painfully at Maxey Flats in Fleming County that buried low-level nuclear waste migrates into waterways, endangering animals and people. So one important question is how the state will oversee plans to contain or move the waste in Estill and Greenup counties.
Other pressing questions include how to make sure other Kentucky landfills have not become clandestine destinations for other states’ concentrated fracking waste, and how to make sure there’s no repeat of what happened in Estill and Greenup.
Energy and Environment Secretary Charles Snavely has reconvened a working group that drafted recent changes in oil and gas industry law to consider options for dealing with fracking waste and other unresolved issues. It’s expected to meet next month.
The shale energy boom in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia has produced mountains of wastewater and rock — or TENORM for technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials — brought to the surface by drilling operations.
There are no federal regulations governing TENORM, which raises the obvious question of shouldn’t there be, while the enforcement breakdown between Kentucky and West Virginia, and within Kentucky, points to the need for greater interstate vigilance.
The Blue Ridge Landfill, which is owned by a Florida company and is across KY 89 from Estill County’s high school and middle school, apparently received the most radioactive waste, an estimated 1,600 to 1,800 tons.
Estill County residents are justifiably angry and anxious and have a lot of questions. They should not have to wait much longer for answers.
Kentucky must protect itself from becoming the resting place for other states’ fracking waste.