Are the Shale Cuttings Being Dumped at the Chemung County Landfill Radioactive?

Part of the process of drilling a well includes disposing of the material that comes out of the well, including “cuttings” and mud—i.e., leftover dirt and rock. A “controversy” is brewing in Chemung County, NY where the county landfill is accepting cuttings from drillers over the border in the Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale. The problem? Sometimes shale cuttings have elevated levels of radioactivity. Those opposed to drilling are playing on people’s fear of the word “radioactive” hoping it will shut down the shipments of shale cuttings to the landfill. (Those shipments, by the way, are generating a nice revenue stream for Chemung County.)

Anyone living in New York’s Southern Tier or Northeast Pennsylvania knows when buying a house you have the basement tested for radon—a naturally occurring radioactive gas that exists in high concentrations in some (not all) locations. Radon comes from the ground. Far below the ground radon gas exists, but also radium and even uranium. Radon and radium are both isotopes of decaying uranium. When you drill one to two miles under the earth, the cuttings that come out may have high concentrations of radioactivity (mostly radium). It’s not a good idea to dump highly radioactive material, naturally occurring or not, in a landfill. No argument on that count. But! What is a “high concentration?” Can it be treated if it is high? And, do cuttings usually have high radioactivity as a general rule?

There is an easy answer here. Determine what levels are safe, and then test incoming loads of cuttings to be sure they don’t violate that standard. That’s just what Chemung County is in the process of doing. The system works—no one wants a health hazard for current and future generations.

Read about the cuttings “controversy” here: Elmira Star Gazette (Mar 31) – Questions raised as landfill seeks to increase intake of Marcellus drilling waste