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No cause for alarm over radioactive drilling waste

Published: Sat, January 28, 2012 @ 12:05 a.m.

2 trucks trying to enter Mahoning Landfill in Sept. had minuscule radiation amounts

By Karl Henkel




Source: Environmental Protection Agency - Radiation Exposure

Those who oppose natural-gas and oil exploration claim the fracking process propagates unsafe levels of radiation through drill cuttings and wastewater.

A local incident, however, recently demonstrated the precise — and extremely low — levels of radioactive material present in drill cuttings.

Two trucks filled with solid waste attempted to enter Mahoning Landfill Inc. in September and set off the facility’s radioactive sensors.

The waste’s origin — Northstar Disposal Services, a subsidiary of Youngstown-based D&L Energy — indicated the material likely was cuttings from drilling an injection well.

The amount — and type — of radiation in this instance, however, was not harmful, said two representatives from the Ohio Department of Health’s Bureau of Radiation Protection.

The two trucks with the material — the only two drill cutting-related radioactive material reports of 40 documented in 2011 — contained 6.7 and 5.4 microrem. There are 1 million microrem in one rem, meaning that the material in the two trucks had a combined radiation level of 0.00000121 rem.

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, a microrem is a unit of measurement used to determine a person’s biological risk to radiation.

To compare, the average chest X-ray emits 4,000 microrem, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is 600 times the radiation found in the drill cuttings.

Steve Helmer, program administrator at ODOH’s Bureau of Radiation Protection, said Mahoning Landfill could have accepted the drill cuttings, a result of drilling, which comes before the fracking process.

“The idea of drill cuttings being a risk from a radiologic standpoint, we’re just not seeing that,” Helmer said.


The drilling industry often comes under fire, particularly from “fractivists” such as state Rep. Robert F. Hagan of Youngstown, D-60th, who want to slow down or halt drilling in Ohio because of potential health risks such as radioactive material.

Radioactive material, under Ohio law, consists of many sources, including naturally occurring radioactive material or NORM, and also technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material, or TENORM. These are different than man-made radioactive waste.

NORM is found everywhere — in the air, in soil and particularly in thick, underground rock formations.

It is from those formations that NORM originates in drill cuttings and consists of uranium, radium and thorium.

Fracking or flowback water pulls radium out of the ground, said David Lipp, health-physics supervisor at ODOH’s Bureau of Radiation Protection. Lipp said the radium levels then become higher than typical levels found in water.

According to the U.S. EPA, about 30 percent of domestic gas and oil wells produce some level of TENORM but differ from state to state.

The radioactive level of TENORM, and NORM, for that matter, can differ based on geologic formation, among other factors. Lipp said ODOH is looking into the variances of radioactivity in NORM and TENORM based on location in Ohio.


NORM can and should be disposed of in landfills, said Lipp, who added that low levels found in the drill cuttings is not a public-health concern.

“It’s like being afraid of getting hit by a truck and then having a Hot Wheels/¢ car hit your foot,” he said.

Companies such as Mahoning Landfill, as a business decision, may reject material that sets off a radioactive sensor, Helmer said.

D&L said it hired a company to transport the returned drill cuttings elsewhere and did not know the end location of the material.

Helmer said the same material likely would have cleared sensors at other landfills.

NORM and TENORM both fall under the tangled web of Ohio’s environmental regulatory authority.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources regulates fluid from natural-gas and oil drilling; the Ohio Department of Natural Resources regulates landfills; and the Ohio Department of Health regulates radioactive material.

The federal EPA says there have been no cases in the country in which radioactive materials in sewage systems have been a threat to public health and safety.


1JoeFromHubbard(1817 comments)posted 4 years, 6 months ago

The poison is in the dose. As stated in the story, the amount of radiation from local drilling byproduct is negligible. One would think it is at Chernobyl levels from the statements of the uninformed in the media. Many people have more radiation exposure from Radon in their own homes.

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2southsidedave(5199 comments)posted 4 years, 6 months ago

No cause for alarm...famous last words!

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3najjjj(106 comments)posted 4 years, 6 months ago

Radiation is not the only contaminant to be found in this waste. Radioactive material is just a part of what is being dumped and left to seep into soil and water tables.

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4southbelle22(16 comments)posted 4 years, 6 months ago

if even just a "low level" was discovered, is this enough to show regular on site testing should be required? how much radiation escapes in the transport? is anyone concerned that they don't know where this went? i don't think we should be comfortable with such a one-sided sweeping under the rug of this issue. this is RADIATION people!!!! if you do a little research you can easily find reports in PA with radium levels in the thousands of times greater than allowed around the wells. i don't think this is something to make light of. we need more outside help in the valley as we are being taken advantage of so quickly and cannot trust the ODNR. i want to see someone trustworthy test those cuttings. we should be demanding this!!!! OHIO, TELL THEM TO HIT THE ROAD AND STOP SHOVING THEIR CANCERS DOWN OUR THROATS!!!!

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5JoeFromHubbard(1817 comments)posted 4 years, 6 months ago

The fear surrounding the process of natural gas extraction has drawn enough attention that the developing companies will not be able to escape close scrutiny.

If actual, not imagined, dangers are realized, they will be properly addressed.

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6rprosek(1 comment)posted 4 years, 6 months ago

Check out the articles by Ian Urbina in the New York Times. They found radiation from the gas well waste in a sewage plant that was so strong, the feces from city waste water in Pennsylvania that would not break down because the radiation had killed all the bacteria. We can't be sure what level of radiation is where with gas wells. It can vary, but radiation from wells becomes more concentrated as liquids condense out into salts. This needs a lot more investigation, but it is nothing to fool around with. Scientists say that there really is NO safe level of radiation. The more we are exposed to, the more likely we are to suffer mutations that lead to cancer. And, if "brine" from gas wells is spread on roads, it will dry out and radioactive dust particles from it can be breathed in by humans. Finally, ODNR has not revamped its NORM standards for about 20 years, even though the interstate advisory group, NORMAL, had recommended that they do so. So again, we see, ODNR is NOT prepared to protect the public.

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7JoeFromHubbard(1817 comments)posted 4 years, 6 months ago

Management of drilling byproducts will undergo an evolution to properly deal with issues that have become environmentally and politically sensitive. This will require time to reach maturity.

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8howardinyoungstown(591 comments)posted 4 years, 6 months ago

If NORM is such a non issue, why do so many wells in Pennsylvania have outrageous amounts of radioactivity in them? Remember almost 50% of the toxic wastewater going into Ohio's injection wells is coming from PA. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/20...

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9HardRain(1 comment)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

You reached this conclusion - that drilling waste is harmless- from one sample? Chesapeake Energy alone is is projecting 12,000 wells across Ohio, not to mention what we are getting from New York and Pennsylvania. We are not talking about waste from one well here. We are talking about the cumulative and long term effect of drilling tens of thousands of wells from all over the Eastern USA. There is NO routine monitoring of waste content by the ODNR and there are NO mandated manifests of which wells produced the waste. You can't even say with certainty in your article where the waste came from - "the material 'likely' was cuttings from drilling an injection well." Creating straw men called "fractivists" is great way to try to divide the community. The industry and their shills excel at this type of propaganda. Until we have regulations that monitor every truck load of waste and a regulatory agency prepared to enforce them Ohioans have every right to be concerned. That's why according to a recent Quinnipac Poll 7 out of 10 support a moratorium. That is not being a "frackivist", it's just common sense.The gas industry needs to be held accountable. You only have to be wrong once to lose an aquifer. We are already seeing wells polluted in Medina County and Northern Ohio.

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