James Bruggers8:26 p.m. EST February 25, 2016
Drilling wastes containing concentrated but naturally occurring radio active materials made their way into Kentucky, state officials confirmed on Thursday.
After learning in January that low-level nuclear waste from drilling operations had been dumped illegally in Kentucky last year, state officials are warning this week that all landfills be on the lookout and to not accept any of the radioactive material.
Kentucky Division of Waste Management Director Tony Hatton said officials have confirmed that low-level nuclear waste from drilling operations in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia was sent to a landfill in Estill County between July and November. Officials are also investigating possible illegal shipments of similar waste to a landfill in Greenup County.
He said the waste comes from rock and brine that’s brought to the surface during oil and gas drilling. Naturally occurring radionuclides concentrate during the process. A West Virginia company that recycles the drilling further concentrates the radionuclides — and that’s the waste that Hatton said made to the Blue Ridge Landfill last year in the small town of Irvine, in Estill County, Ky., he said.
It came in 47 sealed boxes, he said. They believe each box contained 25 cubic yards of materials.
State officials do not believe the drilling waste sent to the Green Valley Landfill in Greenup County near West Virginia had gone through that recycling process, so it would present less risk to landfill workers or the public, Hatton said.
Neither is allowed to be transported into Kentucky from those states for disposal, he said.
The state began investigating after receiving a tip in January about shipments of the waste.
The advisory letter was intended to put all landfill operators, waste haulers, transfer station operators and local waste management officials on notice so that they can make sure they are following the law, Hatton said.
Hatton said the waste management division is working with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and its Radiation Health Branch on the investigation. He said the health cabinet regulates radioactive materials, radioactive waste and disposal under terms of a compact with the state of Illinois.
He said state officials plan to meet again with the Blue Ridge Landfill’s operators, Florida-based Advance Disposal, to learn more about how the waste was handled and whether any workers or others might have been exposed. He said there is no reason to believe that there is any ongoing exposure at that dump.
“The best we know, the material has been buried since November,” he said.
While the health cabinet is taking the lead, Hatton said the waste division is also investigating potential enforcement actions.
Kentucky does not have a landfill designed to safely accept low-level radioactive waste, which often includes radioactively contaminated protective clothing, tools, filters, rags and medical tubes. Radioactivity of this category can range from just above background levels to very highly radioactive in cases such as parts from inside a reactor vessel in a nuclear power plant, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
No acceptable dump
The drilling waste is called TENORM, from the term technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material. It comes from such activities as manufacturing, mineral extraction or water processing, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA says radioactivity in TENORM can vary greatly.
Dr. Kraig Humbaugh, senior deputy commissioner at the Kentucky Department for Public Health, said authorities do not know the concentration or radioactivity levels of the material brought into Kentucky. Testing in Estill County now shows no radiation beyond normal background levels, he said.
The state health department is working to assess any risk to employees or others at the time of the placement of the material in the landfill, the agency said in a written statement.
“Legal action against the firm that engaged in the illegal dumping and the landfill that accepted the contaminated material is under review,” the statement said.
Louisville attorney Tom Fitzgerald, director of the Kentucky Resources County and an expert on waste disposal, said the notice sent out Monday by the state underscores concerns about environmental consequences from booming oil and gas fracking zones.
Every county in Kentucky with a landfill needs to have agreements with their owners and operators that ban this kind of waste, he said.
The radionuclides in the waste can have a half-life of more than 1,000 years while liners used in municipal solid waste landfills are warranted typically for only 30 years, FitzGerald said. A half-life is the amount of time required for half the atoms in a radioactive substance to disintegrate.
The Estill County High School and Middle School are located across Kentucky Highway 89 from the landfill.
“Our number one concern is for those kids out there,” Ronnie Riddell, Estill County Emergency Management Agency director, said. “It’s concerning.”
He said Estill County is looking to the health and family services cabinet for information and guidance, adding that he only learned of the dumping from a news reporter on Thursday.
Landfill operator reaction
Hatton said West Virginia-based Fairmont Brine Processing produced the waste, which was brought to the Estill landfill by Advanced TENORM Services, based in West Liberty, Ky. Calls to Fairmont were not returned, and the CJ could not reach Jason Hoskins, the West Liberty man identified as TENORM Services sole officer in state business filings. That company’s website was not functioning Thursday.
“We are working with the state and trying to determine who’s on first base,” Charles Law, general manager of Blue Ridge Landfill, said. He said the matter was being handled farther up the corporate ladder, and declined further comment except to say that there were “gray areas” in how the material got to the landfill.
“We accepted it under normal landfill practices,” he said when asked whether his company knew the material was radioactive.
The letter from the waste management division reminded landfill and transfer station operators and haulers, that it’s their responsibility to make sure they comply with state regulations regarding the handling and disposal of radioactive materials.
FitzGerald said state officials need to track down and account for all of these radioactive wastes that came into Kentucky, and then make sure they do not pose a long-term threat to the public. For the Estill dump, that may mean extracting any closed containers and dispose of them in a licensed low-level nuclear waste dump, he said.
Any landfills that accepted the waste will need to extend the length of time that operators are responsible for any pollution to account for the long-lived radionuclides, he said.
Reach reporter James Bruggers at 502-582-4645 and at [email protected].