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NY’s new solid waste regs fail to protect our communities

New York State’s proposed new safeguards leave a number of gaps in two key waste streams: oil and gas waste disposal, and dumping of construction and demolition debris.

Oil and Gas Waste

We don’t want other states dumping their fracked waste on New York.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos recently claimed that no frack waste is being dumped in New York. FACT CHECK: We wish it were so. But since 2010, at least 23,000 barrels of liquid waste and 590,000 tons of solid waste from Pennsylvania’s fracking operations have been dumped in New York landfills. In addition, portions of 41 municipalities are now spreading liquid waste from gas production operations in New York on roads as a de-icer and dust suppressant.

Oil and gas waste can contain heavy metals, naturally occurring radioactive material such as radium-226 and radium-228, and carcinogens including benzene and toluene. Despite being potentially hazardous and radioactive, the state proposes to continue allowing these wastes — derived from drill cuttings, fracturing fluids, muds, and used fracturing sand — to be disposed in landfills. The state would also allow liquid oil and gas waste “brine” from low-volume gas wells to be spread on roads as a dust suppressant and de-icer. Given the potentially toxic characteristics of these wastes, they should instead be properly classified as hazardous and disposed of only in hazardous waste landfills that are equipped to handle those contaminants.

Riverkeeper and partner organizations submitted detailed technical comments on the state’s oil and gas waste proposals, calling on the state to:

1. Close the loophole in state law that exempts oil and gas waste from being classified as hazardous. The state’s definition of hazardous waste currently excludes “wastes associated with the exploration, development, or production of crude oil, natural gas.” As a result, operators can dispose of waste at municipal solid waste landfills, which are ill-equipped to detect or manage the chemicals, toxic substances, and radioactivity the waste may contain.

2. Prohibit disposal of oil and gas waste in municipal landfills. The overall category of “drilling and production waste” in reality represents a chemically complex mixture of fluid and solid organics, salts, minerals, metals, and radionuclides. Yet the state Department of Environmental Conservation continues to categorize oil and gas wastes simply as general “solid waste,” effectively sanctioning the disposal in landfills of substances with unknown environmental consequences.

3. Prohibit wastewater treatment plants from accepting leachate from landfills that receive oil and gas waste. Standard treatment plants are not capable of treating and removing dangerous substances present in oil and gas waste before the leachate is discharged into rivers and streams.

4. Prohibit application of liquid oil and gas waste on roads. The state proposes chemical testing of liquid waste before it is applied to roads, but the testing is minimal and infrequent; toxic chemical composition limits are lax, and the state lacks oversight mechanisms to ensure that the brine being used is not from Marcellus Shale drilling.

Construction and Demolition Debris

The illegal dumping of construction and demolition debris is widespread and goes largely unnoticed. Riverkeeper, therefore, applauds the state for proposing to establish tracking requirements for transporters of these wastes. The provisions help enforcement officers identify and prevent violations. While this is an important, Riverkeeper urges the state to go further and:

1. Require waste disposal plans for large scale construction and demolition projects. Such plans would identify the volume and types of materials, transportation routes, and destinations of wastes, enabling the Department of Environmental Conservation to ensure that each registered project operates in compliance with waste regulations. The plans also promote recycling of construction and demolition debris waste, ultimately leading to environmental benefits, such as resource conservation, energy savings, pollution prevention and even disposal cost savings.

2. Increase penalties for illegal waste disposal. The current penalties of $2,500 per violation and $500 per day of ongoing illegal waste disposal are not a deterrent, as evidenced by the state’s history of illegal dumping incidences. The Department of Environmental Conservation should join Riverkeeper in supporting legislation to fix this problem.

3. Track transport of “recycled” construction and demolition debris. The state has proposed to exempt materials that are designated for recycling from the tracking requirements, but the loophole threatens undermine the purpose of tracking, giving would-be scofflaws a path around the regulations.

Riverkeeper will continue to press for state action to keep our waterways and our communities safe from irresponsible waste disposal.

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