The Ohio Department of Health, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio Department of Natural Resources unveiled proposed legislation Monday that would tighten regulations dealing with low-level radioactive wastes from drilling for natural gas in the state’s Utica shale.
The legislation “provides for greater oversight and coordination” among the state agencies to oversee the safe disposal in Ohio landfills of drilling muds — earthen materials, sometimes contaminated with oil-based substances — the agencies said in a three-page fact sheet.
A coalition of Ohio eco-groups last December pushed for tighter state rules on such wastes.
The biggest fear is that the radiation from the drill cuttings might expose drillers and landfill workers to unsafe radiation levels, said Julie Weatherington-Rice, a senior scientist with Bennett & Williams Environmental Consultants in the Columbus suburb of Westerville and an adjunct professor at Ohio State University.
The radiation also could end up in landfill liquids, or leachate, that typically is shipped to local sewage-treatment plants for processing before being discharged to Ohio’s streams, she said. That means Ohio’s streams could end up with troublesome levels of radiation, although the general public probably is not at risk, she said.
The new legislation is the result of months of work among the three agencies, said Bethany McCorkle, a spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources. She declined to speculate on the likelihood that the Ohio legislature will approve the 50-page proposal.
Much of the drilling waste with low levels of naturally occurring radiation would be classified as “naturally occurring radioactive material” (NORM). Most of that material at drill sites would consist of dirt, rocks and cuttings.
It is exempt from federal and state regulations and can be disposed of at the well site unless it is contaminated with oil-based materials. Then it must be shipped to landfills.
A smaller portion of drilling waste would be labeled “technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material” (TENORM). Such materials, including drilling muds and pipe scale, are regulated by the Ohio Department of Health.
Ohio’s TENORM rules have been in place since 1997 and already are among the most restrictive in the country.
“While it is anticipated that TENORM will not be produced at levels that would present a risk to public health, the state is strengthening its regulations to help ensure that these materials are properly characterized and safely managed in Ohio’s solid-waste landfills since it is anticipated more of this material will be needed to be disposed of due to increased oil and gas drilling in the state,” the agencies said.
The state is confident that both types of wastes can be managed properly at landfills, the three agencies said in a teleconference Monday.
Such waste can go into landfills if the radiation levels of radium-226 or radium-228 meet certain state-imposed limits: 5 picocuries per gram.
Testing of drilling wastes must be done by the drillers, and landfills must approve the results before accepting shipments.
Those rules also apply to wastes bound for solid-waste transfer facilities and to wastes coming into Ohio from other states.
Michael Snee of the state health department said drillers with wastes with higher-than-allowed radiation levels will have three options:
• The waste can be shipped to one of several low-level radiation landfills in the West.
• The wastes can go to a Michigan landfill that allows radiation levels up to 50 picocuries per gram.
• The wastes can be blended with clean dirt to dilute and reduce radiation levels under state rules. It then could go into Ohio landfills with approval from the state EPA and health department.
The proposed legislation would authorize the EPA director to create additional rules to deal with handling the low-level radioactive wastes in landfills. That might include analysis of leachate or landfill liquids and groundwater.
State officials said they are unable to estimate the volume of drilling wastes that would be affected by the new rules.
Tests the state conducted at Chesapeake Energy Corp. wells in Ohio earlier this year showed only low levels of radiation, said Rick Simmers, chief of the Ohio Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.