Appalachian Basin

New Report Shows Drilling Waste is Being Properly Managed

A new study by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) found there is little reason for concern regarding how drilling waste associated with shale development is being disposed of in landfills. WVDEP summarized in the report stating,

…The researchers found little concern with regards to the leachate from drill cuttings that were placed in approved and permitted landfills, once that leachate was processed through a correctly operated treatment facility.” (Emphasis added Pg.2)

The WVDEP selected Marshall University’s Center for Environmental and Geotechnical Applied Sciences (CEGAS) to spearhead the study. Researchers first looked at four landfills with the highest monthly tonnages for drill cuttings and then added two additional landfills that have not historically received drill cutting waste.


Researchers analyzed the compounds in leachate—solution created by downward percolating water—in all of the landfills to see if drill cutting materials were a contributing factor to increasing select compound levels detected in landfill leachate and associated leachate treatment facilities. According to the study:

“In addition to chloride, arsenic, barium, iron, manganese, strontium, benzene, and fluoride were detected in drill cutting samples. These compounds were also detected in leachate from landfills accepting drill cuttings. Of these compounds, all except barium was also recorded in leachate from landfills that don’t accept drill cuttings.” (Emphasis added Pg. 8)

Researchers found that all of the same compounds – expect barium – were present in all the landfills despite whether or not they were accepting drilling waste from shale wells. From here the report looked at potential negative impacts on the surface water or groundwater resources of West Virginia associated with the collection, treatment and disposal of leachate from such landfills. The report found that:

“It is currently unlikely that significant amounts of leachate from landfills are coming into contact with surface water or groundwater prior to treatment.” (Pg. 15)

When it comes to drilling waste though, one of the biggest talking points for those opposed to continued shale development is people could come in contact with naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). While this has previously been debunked here and here, researchers from CEGAS looked into radioactive compounds as a part of their study below are some of their key conclusions:

  •  “Radioactive compound levels in landfill leachate are at similar levels at both landfills that accept drill cuttings, and landfills that don’t accept drill cuttings.”
  • “Drill cuttings from the Marcellus Shale formation contain radioactive compounds at levels higher than the overlying strata, and are likely contributing to radioactive compounds present in landfill leachate. However, radioactive compounds are found at landfills that don’t accept drill cuttings, therefore it can be expected that radioactive compounds present in landfill leachate, at landfills that accept drill cuttings, are also the result of other materials being accepted in the landfill.”
  •  “Radon levels recorded are significantly below proposed federal drinking water standards.” ( emphasis added, 154)

According to the study, landfills that are permitted to receive oil and gas drilling waste are currently using approximately one percent of their permitted acreage for cuttings disposal on an annual basis. These landfills accept waste from many other industries and, just like the oil and gas industry and the waste it generates, it all comes down to proper waste management. This latest WVDEP study is another in a long line of reports that shows that waste generated from this industry is being properly treated and disposed of. With the safe management of this process, residents throughout the Commonwealth as well as the rest of the United States can continue to reap the vast benefits from continued shale development.

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