4 States Struggling to Manage Radioactive Fracking Waste

The Marcellus Shale has transformed the Appalachian Basin into an energy juggernaut. Even amid a recent drilling slowdown, regional daily production averages enough natural gas to power more than 200,000 U.S. homes for a year.

But the rise of hydraulic fracturing over the past decade has created another boom: tons of radioactive materials experts call an “orphan” waste stream. No federal agency fully regulates oil and gas drilling byproducts—which include brine, sludge, rock and soiled equipment—leaving tracking and handling to states that may be reluctant to alienate energy interests.

“Nobody can say how much of any type of waste is being produced, what it is and where it’s ending up,” said Nadia Steinzor of the environmental group Earthworks, who co-wrote a report on shale waste.

Geologists have long known soil and rock contain naturally occurring radioactive materials that can become concentrated through activities like fracking, in which sand and chemicals are pumped thousands of feet underground to release oil and gas from tight rock. But concerns about fracking largely have focused on injection wells and seismic activity, with less attention paid to “hot” waste that arrives at landfills and sets off radiation alarms.

The four states in the Marcellus are taking different approaches to the problem; none has it under control. Pennsylvania has increasingly restricted disposal of drilling waste, while West Virginia allows some landfills to take unlimited amounts. Ohio has yet to formalize waste rules, despite starting the process in 2013. New York, which banned fracking, accepts drilling waste with little oversight.

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