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Will Ohio start accepting drilling brine at 40 landfills?

By Bob Downing
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Could Ohio landfills soon start accepting large volumes of solidified briny waste from shale drilling in Ohio and other states?

The state has not approved such shipments, but is poised — at least on paper — to open the door for drillers to use this new disposal option. That could result in tens of millions of gallons of drilling liquids being solidified and dumped in Ohio’s 40 landfills.

The possibility is spelled out in a three-page advisory the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency released in September with major input from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The agencies would need to approve such requests from landfills.

ODNR supervises drilling; the EPA manages landfills.

Consideration for allowing solidified brine wastes first came at a time when Ohio drillers were concerned about a flood of brine from Pennsylvania reducing available space in Buckeye state injection wells.

A scenario of large quantities of solidified brine coming into the state worries environmentalists.

“It’s bizarre that Ohio would be letting brine go into its landfills,” said activist Teresa Mills, a resident of Grove City in suburban Columbus. “It’s a big Pandora’s box, and it’s very troubling. ... It’s a nightmare waiting to happen.”

Chris Borello of Stark County Concerned Citizens said it “sets a dangerous precedent.” She called the possibility shocking and said it creates “a serious loophole.”

“It’s a big concern, and something that needs to be looked at closely,” said Trent Dougherty, an attorney with the Ohio Environmental Council.

Liquid wastes in play include flowback water, produced immediately after hydraulic fracturing, or fracking; plus brine, or production water, generated after the fracking is done and the well goes into production.

Because Ohio landfills cannot accept liquid wastes under current law, the liquid would have to be solidified. Materials used to achieve that could include cement kiln dust, fly ash, foundry sands, shredded auto parts or wood chips.

It then could be classified as solid waste, not hazardous waste, which requires special and more costly handling as some critics advocate.

State rules give ODNR authority to approve other brine disposal methods, including, perhaps, landfilling the solidified liquids. To date, no state approval has been given and no one has requested approval, agency officials said.

At present, such liquid wastes must be stored below ground in Ohio’s 179 injection wells or spread on roads as a deicer.

The liquid wastes can contain significant amounts of salts and total dissolved solids; low-level radiation and toxic heavy metals picked up from the underground rocks; oils and grease; leftover toxic chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing of the underground rock; and certain volatile organic compounds, including cancer-causing benzene.

Difficult to gauge

How much liquid waste might be involved is difficult to gauge. Nationally, about 21 billion barrels of brine are produced annually in the United States from nearly 1 million wells, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Pennsylvania produced about 21 million barrels (each 42 gallons) of brine and wastewater in the second half of 2011.

Ohio is expecting to get nearly 14 million of the 42-gallon barrels of briny wastes in 2012 when final records are tabulated next month. That would be an increase from the 12.8 million barrels in 2011.

More than half of that liquid drilling waste coming into Ohio for injection is from Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Ohio could get even more drilling liquids if New York decides to lift a 4½-year-old drilling moratorium. Much of that waste likely would be sent to Ohio.

The state cannot block such waste because it is interstate commerce protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Paperwork filed

Jim Willis of the New York-based Marcellus Drilling News, a pro-drilling publication, said he was not familiar with any state that allows briny liquid wastes to go into landfills.

At least three Ohio landfills — Mahoning in Mahoning County, Apex in Jefferson and Kimble in Tuscarawas — filed paperwork for new solidification facilities after Allen’s memo came out. All three won EPA approval Nov. 26 for the new facilities.

All three landfills are prohibited from accepting brine, although they can accept drill cuttings, drilling muds and frack sands, according to EPA permits.

Four other Ohio landfills already have similar solidification facilities: American Landfill in Stark County, a site in Mahoning County and two in Fairfield County.

JMW Transfer Station in Canton also has requested a solidification permit, the EPA said. That request is pending.

Such facilities can handle a wide array of liquids and are not exclusive to drilling wastes. They can each cost several million dollars.

The impetus for the new facilities might have been the three-page Ohio EPA advisory, dated Sept. 18. It bears the signature of Pamela Allen, chief of the EPA’s Division of Materials and Waste Management.

It outlines state policies on dealing with drill cuttings, drilling muds, frack sands and liquids from the Utica drilling in eastern Ohio and Marcellus shale drilling in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Her memo reads, in part: “As oil and gas drilling activity in the Utica and Marcellus shale formations increases, licensed municipal solid waste landfills in Ohio and surrounding states should expect to see increased volumes of incoming solid wastes generated from the drilling process, including drill cuttings, drilling muds and frack sands.

“Other wastes associated with shale development, including oil field fluids and brine, will also be generated in large volumes, and there is increasing interest from drilling companies in exploring options to manage these liquid wastes,” she wrote.

Landfills cannot take bulk liquid wastes, but those wastes can be solidified either on site and sent to the landfill or at the landfill itself, Allen said.

Such solidified wastes can be about 20 percent liquid and are often more sludge-like than a solid.

Allen’s memo also spells out state rules from the Ohio Department of Health, plus the EPA and Natural Resources on dealing with drilling wastes.

The advisory appears to offer a new disposal option for brine, but EPA spokesman Mike Settles says Allen’s advisory is not new, just a recapitulation of existing state rules.

The biggest threat

Such wastes could create an environmental problems at the landfills accepting them, said Ben Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University.

The biggest threat, he said, would be certain volatile organic compounds, including benzene and ethylbenzene, that could create a health risk to landfill workers and neighbors. The toxic chemicals from the underground rock would be largely airborne, he said.

Environmentalist Julie Weatherington-Rice said she is worried that large volumes of low-level radioactive waste from the brine and drill cuttings will go into Ohio landfills and create problems. Problems, she said, include city sewage plants that would take radioactive landfill leachate for treatment and discharge it to Ohio waterways.

If such radioactive waste came from a hospital, it would be rejected at Ohio landfills, but it is acceptable under Ohio drilling rules, she said.

Already accepted?

Mills, the environmentalist from Grove City, also is a representative of the Buckeye Environmental Network and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice

She said the state’s solidification advisory came out a short time after she had raised the possibility that Ohio landfills already were accepting drilling liquids.

She found information the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection posts online that reports where that state’s drillers are sending drilling wastes, including liquids.

Four Ohio sites appear to have accepted “drilling liquids” from Pennsylvania in the first six months of 2012.

• Soil Remediation, a company in Lowellville in Mahoning County, accepted 45,077 barrels of “drilling fluids.”

• Tunnel Hill Reclamation Landfill in Perry County accepted 18,429 barrels of “drilling fluids.” It also took in 67.8 barrels of “service fluids.”

• Apex Sanitary Landfill in Jefferson County took in 3,906 barrels of “flowback fluids” from the fracking process.

• Vienna Junction, a construction-demolition landfill on the Ohio-Michigan line near Toledo, is linked to 370 barrels of “drilling liquids.”

Those four sites also legally accepted 116,000 tons of drill cuttings, the Pennsylvania records show, and Ohio also took in 350 tons of fracking sands from its neighbor.

In addition, Moran Industries of Sunbury, in east-central Pennsylvania, has reported that it is shipping drill cuttings to an Ohio landfill. The company says it is unable to identify that landfill due to confidentiality provisions of its rail contract.

Settles, of the Ohio EPA, denied that Mills’ discovery in the Pennsylvania records triggered the agency’s advisory.

It is unclear to the Ohio EPA how Pennsylvania categorizes its liquid wastes, but the agency is checking with that state and with Ohio landfills, Settles said.

He emphasized that Ohio has no knowledge of any landfills in the state accepting liquid wastes that should not have been accepted.

At least one landfill owner says brine will never go into Ohio landfills in large volumes.

Keith Kimble of Dover-based Kimble Companies said that is because it is far cheaper for drillers to pay to inject the liquids than to solidify them.

Drillers typically pay $2 to $4 a barrel for injection, while landfills charge $18 to $20 per ton, according to industry sources.

“I just don’t see it happening,” Kimble said of mass shipments of solidified brine.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.