CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Environmentalists raised concerns about a bill that won final passage Friday in the West Virginia legislature that would overturn caps on how much drilling waste several landfills can accept from hydraulic fracturing.
The bill, approved overwhelmingly in a special session and now sent to the governor, would allow so-called tonnage caps to be lifted for drilling waste at seven landfills that are continuing to pursue a permit to build separate areas for drilling waste. The bill also mandates that the state Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, monitor the sites for radioactivity and conduct a study on leaching.
The seven landfills are located in the state's Northwest Region and Northern Panhandle.
Del. Stephen Skinner, who voted against the bill passed Friday, called it "a Band-Aid on a very serious problem."
According to the Department of Environmental Protection, six landfills in the state are currently accepting the drilling mud.
A July 2013 memorandum from DEP Cabinet Secretary Randy Huffman allowed landfills in the process of applying for a permit to expand from a Class B to Class A landfill to accept drilling waste beyond their monthly tonnage limits until June 1, 2014. The memo is in response to the Natural Gas Horizontal Well Control Act of 2011, which required drill cuttings to be disposed of "in an approved solid waste facility."
Skinner questioned the legality of the DEP allowing caps to be lifted in July.
Hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, involves pumping huge volumes of water, sand and chemicals underground to split open rocks to allow oil and gas to flow. Improved technology has allowed energy companies to gain access to huge stores of natural gas underneath numerous states but has raised widespread concerns that it might lead to groundwater and other contamination.
Fracking waste consists of drilling mud from laced containing some chemical byproducts of fracking. Because it comes from deep in the Marcellus Shale, the mud is more radioactive than topsoil.
The West Virginia Environmental Council issued a statement Thursday that municipal solid waste landfills are not designed to handle the sheer bulk of the fracking waste or the possibility they contain heavy metals, petroleum hydrocarbons, and radioactive materials.
Bill Hughes, Chairman of the Wetzel County Solid Waste Authority, said the Wetzel County Landfill took in 250,000 tons of drilling waste last year, although the landfill's cap has been 10,000 tons a month.
"Every landfill has a projected lifespan, but if we take in unlimited tonnage for an unlimited time, no one can give me a reasonable or accurate projection of its lifespan," he said.
Don Garvin, legislative coordinator for the Environmental Council, said West Virginia's solid waste laws have worked well for over 20 years. "There is no need to ignore tonnage caps or to disregard siting plans established by local solid waste authorities."
Wetzel County is one of the six landfills that have applied for a permit to build and expand drilling mud into a separate cell, but it hasn't been built yet. Meanwhile, Hughes said he's concerned about its current policy of mixing the cuttings with all municipal solid waste.
Hughes said if the DEP study mandated by the bill discovers an issue with leaching from the materials, the cuttings will be impossible to separate. The matter requires more study, he said.
Tom Aluise, spokesman for the DEP, said the Horizontal Well Control Act passed in 2011 mandates this drilling waste must be disposed of in landfills. Because of this legislation, cuttings would move into landfills with or without the drilling bill passed Friday.
If landfills cannot accept the drilling cuttings because of monthly tonnage limits, gas drilling companies would be forced to take their cuttings to regulated facilities out of state, he said.
Before the act, cuttings were being buried - unchecked - on well pads all over the state. Aluise said landfills are "a much better option from an environmental standpoint because landfills are regulated by the state. They are lined, have leak detection systems and groundwater monitoring wells."