Nov. 23–Some Michigan landfills could take in low-level radioactive waste from oil and gas fracking at up to 10 times the radioactivity currently allowed at landfills statewide, under bills proposed in the Michigan Senate.
Critics contend the proposed bills further open Michigan up to becoming the dumping ground for fracking wastes from all over the United States.
At issue is waste called “technologically enhanced, naturally occurring radioactive material,” or TENORM. It includes materials whose low, naturally occurring radiation levels are increased through human activities that concentrate them. The controversial oil and gas drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a major generator of it.
Michigan’s current TENORM disposal guidelines allow the waste to go to any state landfill — those designed for hazardous or common, municipal waste — provided the radioactive elements commonly found in TENORM, radium-226 and radium-228, do not exceed 50 picocuries per gram. One picocurie is roughly equivalent to background levels of radioactivity naturally occurring in the environment.
Senate Bill 1196, sponsored by state Sen. Tom Casperson, would enshrine into law the 50-picocurie limit for TENORM going to state landfills, and add a limit for another radioactive element, lead-210, of up to 260 picocuries per gram.
Casperson’s bill would also allow landfills to seek state approval to take in TENORM wastes at higher radioactivity concentrations, up to 500 picocuries per gram for radium-226, radium-228 and/or lead-210, through modifications to their operating licenses.
The 500-picocurie limit change matches a request US Ecology made in 2014 for an increase in allowed radioactivity in TENORM it takes in at its large Wayne Disposal hazardous waste landfill in Wayne County’sVan Buren Township, north of I-94 next to the Willow Run Airport. The company withdrew the request in October 2014, following a Free Press report that August noting Wayne Disposal was preparing to take in 36 tons of low-level, radioactive fracking waste from a Pennsylvania oil and gas driller. The waste had previously been rejected by landfills in both Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not weighed in on health protective standards related to TENORM, but on its website states that it is investigating TENORM and its management “because it can be a hazard to human health and the environment.”
“Although EPA and others working on the problem have already learned a great deal about TENORM, we still do not completely understand all the potential radiation exposure risks it presents to humans and the environment,” the agency states.
Under Casperson’s bill, requesting facilities would need to meet a number of requirements, including training and protection for workers, radiation surveys and ongoing radiation monitoring at the landfill boundary, and ongoing analysis of radioactive elements in groundwater. TENORM summary reports would need to be submitted to the state each year.
Facilities seeking permission to take more radioactive TENORM would also be required under the bill to spell out how the facility will “ensure the annual dose to members of the public during landfill operation and after site closure will be less than 25 millirem.” A millirem is a unit of absorbed radiation dose, and 1 millirem is about the amount of increased body absorption from an average year of TV watching, or a year living next door to a normally operating nuclear power plant.
Casperson, a Republican from Escanaba, chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
“I look at (the bill) as kind of clarifying something that was acceptable, but we didn’t have the criteria or parameters for it,” he said. “So this sets those parameters.
“We worked with the Department (of Environmental Quality) as far as what was tolerable, and worked with the industry people that are involved in disposal of TENORM.”
A second bill, Senate Bill 1195, sponsored by state Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, would establish a $5 per ton surcharge on TENORM disposed of in Michigan landfills, with the proceeds to fund DEQ’s regulation of TENORM in Michigan, and provide grants to local governments to obtain equipment to monitor TENORM radiation. This bill, if ultimately approved by the Legislature and signed into law, would take effect only if Senate Bill 1196 is also passed.
Wayne Disposal is one of 17 hazardous waste-permitted facilities in the country — and one of only three east of the Mississippi River. US Ecology advertises on its website its ability to provide TENORM disposal services for customers both within and outside of Michigan.
A 2014 Free Press investigation found US Ecology’sWayne County hazardous waste facilities, including Wayne Disposal, had been cited for at least 15 violations over the previous decade and fined more than $471,000 by state and federal regulators.
Violations stemmed from incidents, including a leak in the hazardous waste landfill’s primary protective liner; toxic leachate spills into surface water; improper venting and monitoring of stored underground hazardous waste; disposing of hazardous waste in nonhazardous landfill locations, and failing to control chemical reactions during processing that caused fires on-site. DEQ records showed at least nine fires started in US Ecology’sWayne County facilities in the previous nine years as a result of toxic chemicals reacting with each other during treatment.
Despite the violations and mishaps, the Wayne Disposal landfill got DEQ permission in 2012 to just about double its size, to a total capacity of nearly 22.5 million cubic yards.
US Ecology officials have maintained that their site is well-engineered, protects the public, and complies with all regulations.
Amid public concern over US Ecology’s TENORM acceptance from other states, Gov. Rick Snyder in August 2014 created a panel to review the state’s TENORM regulations and practices. The panel, including representatives of the public, environmental organizations, academia, the oil and gas industry and waste disposal industry, in February 2015 issued a paper finding the state’s existing regulations were protective of public health and the environment. The panel further found “because of the extra controls that are in place at a Type I (hazardous waste) landfill, the DEQ could consider evaluating that for possibly having a higher level” of allowed TENORM radiation.
The nonprofit Michigan Environmental Council supports the intent behind the bills, deputy policy director Sean Hammond said. He noted that the US Ecology facility in Wayne County is probably the only landfill in the state that could meet the bill’s requirements.
“We think that’s probably a pretty good start — let’s limit this to the only site that can really handle it,” he said.
But LuAnne Kozma from the Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan said the bills would enable a further “opening up of Michigan landfills to radioactive fracking wastes from other states.” The ballot question committee has attempted to put an initiative on the statewide ballot to ban fracking and its wastes from Michigan, but its more than 270,000 gathered petition signatures were not accepted earlier this year, first by the state Bureau of Elections and then at the state Court of Appeals, amid questions over the length of time in which they were gathered.
“It’s a lot of waste in one site, surrounded by a huge population,” Kozma said. “And the question is, where will they take this next? There’s no end to this radioactive frack waste. We’re all going to be surrounded by it, eventually. This is bad news for our health.
“We should be saying no to this waste — it shouldn’t be being created, anyway.”
Senate Bills 1195 and 1196 have been referred to the Senate Natural Resources Committee for consideration.
Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @keithmatheny.
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