|Marcellus Watch: The DEC Plays Ostrich on Rradioactive Waste
A generation ago, defiant residents of Allegany County blocked the state from establishing a dump licensed to handle the state's radioactive waste in their community. Today, a handful of the same people object to a private company's plan to boost imports of radioactive wastes from Pennsylvania gas drilling to its Allegany landfill.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is weighing whether to let Casella Waste Systems expand its Hyland Landfill in Angelica by 49 percent.
State officials have not responded to requests for a full environmental review or even a public hearing on the plan. They have reason to tread lightly. The last time Alleghany residents mobilized on this issue, in 1990, they mounted horses to resist state troopers and built barricades with old tractors and manure spreaders.
The state then canceled its planned licensed radioactive waste dump, sending shock waves across the country. Since then virtually every state has scrambled to find any community willing to accept a licensed dump for its "low-level" radioactive waste. Almost all, including New York, have failed.
That has left the oil and gas industry without enough licensed facilities to handle its substantial radioactive waste. In response, the federal government and the states have eased rules for disposal, backtracking on accepted scientific conclusions about the gravity of the risk.
At the federal level, the so-called Halliburton Loophole in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted oil and gas waste from key provisions of the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act.
At the state level, the DEC has if anything been even more complicit in denying the risk of radioactive waste so private companies can sidestep the cost of addressing it. The agency now allows Hyland and four other Southern Tier landfills -- none with a license to handle radioactive waste -- to import drill cuttings and other wastes from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of Marcellus shale wells in Pennsylvania.
Currently, New York restricts fracking in its Marcellus shale. But if industry wins its long-running bid to frack here, the facilities for the resulting radioactive waste will be waiting.
Shale formations are known to have high levels of naturally occurring radioactive material, or NORM, and the Marcellus is suspected to be the most contaminated of all the nation's shales.
So, to help out, DEC officials adopted an aggressive if not radical legal interpretation. They declared that they had no authority to regulate NORM that had not been "processed and concentrated," and then they interpreted "processed and concentrated" so narrowly that it never applied.
This loophole means the level of radioactivity in fracking waste is legally irrelevant to the DEC. High or low, it doesn't matter, the agency argued in support of a 2010 plan by Casella to import Marcellus wastes to the Chemung County Landfill, which it operates.
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