Ohio seeks new tests, reports on oil and natural gas drilling waste

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Contaminated wastes from a boom in oil and natural gas drilling would face new testing, reporting and tracking requirements before going to Ohio landfills under proposal developed by three state agencies over the past several months.

Language for the stepped up requirements is planned as part of Gov. John Kasich's $63.2 billion, two-year operating budget proposal. Details made available Monday were first reported by the Akron Beacon Journal.

The planned changes would requires drilling companies to test drilling muds, dirt and rock for radioactivity that hasn't occurred naturally and to share that information with landfills before the waste is accepted.

The legislation sets thresholds for concentrations of technologically enhanced radioactive material -- nicknamed TENORM -- of five picocuries per gram of radium-226 or radium-227. State officials said that's in line with national standards.

Drilling wastes containing more than that could either be diluted under regulatory supervision, or would be sent to one of the out-of-state low-level radioactive disposal sites licensed to handle such material.

The Ohio departments of Health and Natural Resources and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency worked together on the legislative package.

Officials said high concentrations of radium can lead to high levels of radon, an odorless colorless gas that's been linked to lung cancer.

"Down the road people living near a landfill, or 100 years from now if that landfill's closed and someone builds a house on it, they could potentially have some high radon concentrations in that home," said Michael Snee, chief of the Ohio Department of Health's Bureau of Radiation Protection. "So that's what we're trying to prevent by limiting how much TENORM can potentially go to a landfill."

Snee said the legislation "puts the onus on the industry" to test drilling waste so landfills don't get saddled with the responsibility.

State officials said the proposal was under way before Ohio revoked permits last week for two companies that allegedly dumped some 20,000 gallons of gas-drilling wastewater down a storm sewer that empties into the Mahoning River watershed around Youngstown.

The incident added to a litany of troubles the state has faced over the thousands of gallons of wastewater from fracking that are being disposed in the state. High-pressure deep injection of the wastewater near Youngstown led to a series of earthquakes beginning in 2011 and a subsequent moratorium on drilling near the epicenter of the activity.

Rick Simmers, head of the state's Division of Oil and Gas Resources, said 98 percent of the fluid produced from fracking is going into injection wells. Rules laid out Monday deal with the solid waste generated in the drilling process.

"This is in an abundance of caution, but very proactive. We think the volumes will be low, we think the levels will be low," said Ohio Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle. "But it's a proactive measure."

Naturally occurring radioactive material, or NORM, is exempted from regulation because it can be found anywhere in the environment.

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