Saturday, April 26, 2014

Paper trail for Pa. shale waste leads to ex-IBM site in NY Official dismisses DEP record of cuttings shipped upstate

A delivery arrives in the village of Endicott, NY last summer
Photo: NY Friends of Clean Air and Water
ENDICOTT, NY -- An issue over what – exactly -- is arriving in tanker trucks for disposal at a manufacturing plant in Endicott, New York is a recent and vivid example of the fear and uncertainty over the endpoint of waste produced by the shale gas industry, and the lack of regulatory wherewithal to track it.

It’s a matter of record with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation that the tanker trucks in question are importing more than 80,000 gallons of waste a day to the plant in the heart of the village. That sum includes 30,000 gallons of leachate from the Seneca Meadow’s landfill, and 50,000 gallons from the Broome County landfill. But there is much that is not on the record, and I will get to that in a moment. First, some background.

Leachate is the soluable and suspended matter that percolates through landfills with (in this area) 30 inches of rain each year, plus whatever moisture is in the landfill itself. This drainage includes essentially anything that goes into the landfill that can be flushed out with water. Put another way, Leachate consists of landfill dregs.

Municipal sewage treatment plants are generally not equipped to handle landfill leachate, so it’s shipped to commercial plants designed to treat industrial waste. The sprawling manufacturing campus in Endicott, in the middle of a heavily populated retail and residential area of the village, was once home to IBM Corp’s micro electronic division .The industrial park, now owned by Huron Real Estate, includes a plant that has been treating waste produced from onsite operations for decades.

The most recent imports are a new source of income for the current operators, i3 Electronics. They began arriving conspicuously last year from Seneca Meadows landfill in 18-wheel tanker trucks rolling through the village. At that time, the business was owned by EIT, which eventually fell to bankruptcy. Along with the tanker trucks came suspicion and fear that former and current operators of the business are trying to offset steady manufacturing losses and job declines over the years with revenue from waste imports.

The suspicion is not without justification. As far as state regulators are concerned, the plant is processing this new source of landfill waste, without a permit, as part of a pilot study. But no time frame has been allocated, and no public comment period or public notification has been declared. According to Mary Jane Peachey, a regulator with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the DEC has not monitored the input or output of the plant in at least five years.

And here is another critical piece of background: The i3 Electronics site and the surrounding residential and retail district is a Class 2 state Super Fund site, meaning existing pollution there poses a “significant threat to public health or the environment.” Since 1979, IBM Corp. has been pumping toxic solvents from the ground that have seeped from the micro-electronics plant into the community, affecting more than 470 homes. There have been multiple spills since.

It is no surprise that Endicott residents are generally concerned about becoming a waste destination, and specifically concerned about waste from shale gas development, which have been banned in New York pending a health review.

Much of the controversy over fracking waste involves the chemical solution that goes into shale gas wells to stimulate production, and the liquid mix of brine, chemicals and metals that comes out. But liquid waste – called flowback – is just one part of a broader metric. Shale gas development also involves a viscous solution called drilling mud, and solid waste, including drill cuttings tinged with varying degrees of metals, solvents, and naturally occurring radio active material (NORM) from deep in the ground. It’s a matter for record that drilling cuttings from the Marcellus Shale tend to be radioactive, and the New York State Department of Health has advised officials from the DEC to devise a testing protocol to ensure hot drilling waste is handled and disposed of properly .

Drill cuttings, like flowback, are also exempt from federal hazardous waste handling laws, and they often end up in landfills, like Seneca Meadows.

And that’s how shale gas dregs can end up Endicott, or countless other places where landfill leachate is treated. The shipping of leachate to private plants is not, in itself, sinister, or even especially newsworthy. It’s the exemptions, loopholes, and lack of disclosure about its contents that makes it a problem and rightly invites the attention of activists and media watchdogs.

According to records filed with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Seneca Lake Meadows landfill was the final destination for Marcellus Shale drill cuttings from 196 wells drilled in Pennsylvania during 2010 and 2011. After tracking this bit of information down on their own, some Endicott residents and area activists wanted to know if this potentially radio active drilling waste stream ended in Endicott via the importation of Seneca Meadows leachaete. If so, were state regulators aware of it?

And that brings us to the part of the story where the record gets muddy.

A citizens group called the Western Broome Environmental Stakeholders Coalition met with the DEC’s Peachey in February to get to the heart of the matter. (A video of the meeting, filmed by activist Bill Huston, is available here.) Early in the meeting, the question came up as to whether the Seneca Meadows leachate arriving in Endicott was tested for radioactivity – a simple question that apparently invited a very confusing answer.

Peachey said that step is unnecessary, unless agency personal “are aware” that the waste comes from a suspected radioactive source. “When we are aware that someone is taking a waste stream that would have those elements we would require them to do appropriate sampling and monitoring for that,” she explained.

When a resident pointed out that Seneca Meadows takes Marcellus drill cuttings, Peachey challenged the source of that information. “If they were taking fracking waste now I think we would know it,” she said. When told that the information came directly from the Pennsylvania DEP database, Peachy replied: “I would question that ... I would like to substantiate that more with what’s currently going on there.”

DEP records show that Peachey is technically correct. Seneca Meadows is not currently taking waste from shale gas wells. But she failed to tell the group – in a meeting that was purportedly intended to inform the public and set the record straight – that the Pennsylvania record also shows the landfill did accept cuttings from nearly 200 wells over a two-year period. In bureaucratic form, Peachey fixated on timing and semantics while ignoring the essence of the matter.

While Peachey’s response could be explained as an attempt to disarm a source of PR headaches for the agency, it did nothing to address the issue at hand: drill cuttings in the Seneca Meadows landfill and their influence on the leachate. And it circumvented the original question – is the leachate from that landfill being checked for radioactivity as it rolls into Endicott?

The answer (as eventually revealed – sort of) is no, and perhaps there is a good reason that it is not. (Addressing a later question from the audience, Peachey explained that it is up to landfill operators to check for radio-activity.) But Peachey’s failure to acknowledge, much less explain, the record of shipments of cuttings from Pennsylvania gas wells to Seneca Meadows does not inspire trust. The error of omission could be a misguided attempt for damage control. Or it might be evidence that the department is out of the loop in what she pointed out was a “transaction between one private company to another private company.”

Another possibility, no more reassuring, is that the Pennsylvania records are untrustworthy. Before gaining access to the DEP website, visitors must agree to this disclaimer that notes that the data is self-reported, unchecked, unverified, and possibly incomplete:

DEP makes no claims, promises or guarantees regarding the accuracy, completeness or timeliness of the operators’ data that DEP is required to post. DEP expressly disclaims any liability for errors or omissions related to the production data contained within these reports. No warranty of any kind is given by DEP with respect to the production data contained within these reports posted on its website.

All of this uncertainty points to an overarching problem: the industry’s exemption from federal laws that mandate a clear tracking and specific kind of handling of hazardous waste. States are left with that job, and more often than not, state officials – citing a lack of resources -- defer to the industry to get the job done.

The issue of where the waste goes, which I have written about in several posts, is especially pressing these days, as tens of thousands of shale gas wells come on line in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and tens of thousands more elsewhere in the country.In the absence of federal hazardous waste laws and lack of regional planning, placing the waste becomes a process of default as various states consider legislation to ban it. (New Jersey legislators are crafting a second attempt at a ban after the first was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, and the issue is also being considered in New York and Connecticut.) Hence, rather than guided by a master plan, the waste is following the path of least social and political resistance. Much of what comes from the Marcellus, as far as we can tell from industry’s self policing records, goes to injection wells in Ohio, and various landfills and private treatment plants in Pennsylvania and New York.

In addition to Seneca Meadows, DEP records show that New York destinations for waste from the Marcellus Shale include Hyland in Angelica, the Hakes Landfill in Painted Post, the Chemung Landfill near Elmira, Seneca Meadows Landfill in Waterloo and the Allied/BFI Waste Systems landfill in Niagara Falls.

Communities like Niagara Falls (and notably Love Canal) tied to a history of toxic waste disposal are especially sensitive to the possibility of a future tied to more of the same. Even though the Buffalo area does not sit over a viable shale reserve, I have found during book signings there that community members are keenly attuned to the issues of shale gas development and, specifically, the lack of assurances about its waste stream.

Endicott is also one of those places. People in the village are angry that they were not notified about waste imports to the i3 Electronics plant. Matters were made worse last year when a corroded tank holding the contents of a Seneca Meadows shipment failed and at least 6,000 gallons of leachate spilled out, much if it soaking into the ground. Residents were not informed of the shipments or the spill. They were left piecing together information until a year later, when John Okesson, Peachey’s colleague at the DEC, explained details at the February meeting after sustained community pressure for the agency to account for it.

Rick White, a community member and labor advocate, summed up feelings at the end of the meeting. He referred to decades of spills, a pattern of secrecy, and a resulting legacy of environmental problems that, in his words, “stack up.” He continued:

This whole community is very sensitive to the idea that if there is additional toxic fluid, whether it is fracking waste or landfill waste or whatever it might be, and it’s coming into the village of Endicott for whatever the reason, whether it’s to make money or to enrich somebody’s pockets or it its simply to do a good service to the community, the negatives outweigh the positives. And this is why we are asking these questions.

His comments were met with applause from the 50 or so people in attendance.


  1. Replies
    1. Thnx Sue. And please keep up your dilligent work at The Marcellus Effect.

  2. Great investigative journalism--thank you, Tom.

  3. This seems to be yet another situation in which private businesses are being allowed to police themselves--why should it be the landfill operators who check for radioactivity? Isn't this something that state regulators should do?

    1. Mary, Good point. As regulators point out, it’s not feasible for them to stand over the shoulder of every business, so they focus inspections on problem areas and rely on self-policing. But they don’t point out that regulators have less impact now since modern environmental regulation began, due to budget cuts on federal and state levels, and these cuts are empowered by movement that sees government as enemy of private business. Essentially, it’s like cutting a police force – from investigation to enforcement -- and expecting citizens to make up the slack.

    2. Yes, it is like cutting the police force and expecting citizens to make up the slack. If you ask me, it's a symptom of cultural breakdown.

      Of course it would be very expensive to have regulators standing over the shoulder of every business at all times, but that is a far cry from the situation we have now. Frequent surprise inspections would be helpful, for example. Paying inspectors enough to make it less likely that they will view their jobs as training for a career in the industries they are inspecting would also be helpful. Having inspectors present at critical points in an industrial process would be helpful. Maintaining databases to track hazardous waste and then making that information available to the public would be helpful. All of this would, of course, cost money, but health care and lost work time and devalued homes cost money too. And there are other costs too--for example, a polluted area will not exactly be a magnet for young families or new businesses that want to attract talented, educated workers.

      Letting business owners cut corners and pile up the cash while the rest of us pay and pay in various ways isn't good for anyone--including, over the long run, the business owners. Citizens who are sick, and/or who have lost their homes to pollution, and/or who feel insecure because their gov't is offering very little protection are not likely (or even able, in many cases) to go out and purchase a lot of consumer goods.

  4. Tom, this is really outstanding. Thanks very much!
    You really did amazing research on this, and put a lot of pieces together.

    You clarified perfectly the issue I had with Mary Jane Peachey's response to the question about drill cuttings.


    1. Bill thanks for getting the meeting on easily accessible record for all.

  5. Welcome back. We (maybe just me) missed your posts. As an appreciator of good journalism blogging, I'm like the feral cat waiting for another bowl of milk to be place outdoors. You set a bowl out once out of niceness and then the thing just keeps coming back for more.

  6. Thnx Michael. Working on several different projects, including investigation for Press & Sun-Bulletin on current status of NY state SuperFund site at former IBM plant. It's something I have covered for years, though mentioned only in passing here. Re: Shale gas beat, trying to make up for fewer posts with more depth. Appreciate your kind words and regular contributions and insights.

    1. Then you should rename your blog title as "All Things Considered and Then Some." NPR shouldn't mind. I could probably follow your work via social media, but that would assume I figured out the purpose of social media and checked into the applications I may or may not have signed up for. Speaking of which, I probably should check all those apps linking me to the world.

  7. Is this the former IBM Endicott facility discussed in the post? From New York region 7:

    "Village of Endicott Environmental Investigations"

    This site may have had federal oversight under US EPA region 2 at some point in the past.

    The major contaminants of concern for the above referenced site seem to be volatile organic compounds (VOCs). I didn't see anything about treatment of other things. Usually when a treatment plant is built for a groundwater "pump & treat" remedy, it has a focus based on input parameters. Universal treatment plants, designed to handle anything, are really expensive.

    1. That’s the one. The i3 Electronics treatment plant in question does no treat the VOC problem. IBM handles that with a separate permit. I'm making the connection for its relevance to community sensitivity about waste disposal and pollution risk

    2. This is weird. So i3 really doesn't have an a SPDES permit? Sometimes facilities are allowed to operate under interim conditions with the construction permit. I'm baffled.

    3. i3 has a permit for the old waste stream from treatment plant, but not the new. They are allowed to operate under a pilot study pending approval of permit update. IBM permit for discharge ot TCE waste stream is altogether different

    4. A pilot study where time is of the essence? That question was an attempt at being socratic and doesn't deserve an answer.

  8. While it is true the N.J. Senate voted for bill S575 to ban fracking waste from coming into the state, the bill was vetoed when it reached the governor's desk. The garden state has just again introduced a new bill to address this issue which just recently came out of the Senate Environmental Committee. We are anxious to see it achieve passage this time.

    1. Thanks for the update, Christine. Will stay tuned...

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  10. DEC has filed the Part 360 landfill permit to hugely expand the Chemung County landfill which receives frack wastes from Pa. The county legislature approved of this plan and should be voted out of office! The Title V Air Permit for that landfill can be challenged by any group of citizens or individuals who have commented on this landfill plan as it pertains to air pollution. It is a petition to the EPA- lots of guidelines to follow. Deadline is June 21 2015 and such a petition is allowed by the Clean Air Act. EPA which grants these permits will include these petitions. We at CCAC, Concerned Citizens of Allegany County just filed such a petition regarding the modification of Hyland to speed up the daily tonnage by 49%. A good tutorial on how to do such a petition was written by environmental lawyers in 2000 using a grant and helpful: "The Proof is in the Permit"