On August 3, 2020, New Yorkers rejoiced in Governor Cuomo’s signing of legislation to protect the Empire State from Pennsylvania’s fracking waste. Although New York State has banned high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” within its borders, a fracking waste loophole allowed numerous landfills to received both solid and liquid waste products from drilling operations just south of its border, according to records from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP).
What has been at stake
A regulatory loophole in New York State’s laws exempted drilling waste from scrutiny as hazardous materials. Therefore, solid and liquid wastes from drilling operations — including many constituents which are considered secret or “proprietary” — were sent to landfills, and in some cases, spread on roads and walkways in the state. Municipalities were provided with very little understanding of the risks those materials might be posing to air and water quality in and around landfills. Until the signing of this legislation, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has considered road-spreading of waste brine from both conventional and unconventional oil and gas wells that was spread on roads a “BUD,” or a beneficial use determination.
Nevertheless, research has shown that produced water from fracking operations can contain tens to thousands of times the allowable drinking water concentration limit of radium, strontium, barium, lead, arsenic, and other elements. Human health impacts of all phases of drilling operations were explored in a recent paper by Wollin et al. (May 2020).
Water that flows to the surface from oil and gas wells, so-called ‘produced water’, represents a mixture of flow-back, the injected frac fluid returning to the surface, and the reservoir water present in natural oil and gas deposits. Among numerous hazardous compounds, produced water may contain bromide, arsenic, strontium, mercury, barium, radioactive isotopes and organic compounds, particularly benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes (BTEX). The sewage outflow, even from specialized treatment plants, may still contain critical concentrations of barium, strontium and arsenic. Evidence suggests that the quality of groundwater and surface water may be compromised by disposal of produced water.
Carcinogenic and radioactive wastes that are brought to the surface with both conventional and unconventional drilling technologies can have toxic impacts on human health and the natural environment, impacting the endocrine, nervous, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems, as well as air and water quality. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than 75 percent of the chemicals used in fracking are associated with harm to human organs, while 25 percent are tied to cancer and other genetic mutations.
How could this be allowed?
Although the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)—passed in 1976—specifically safeguards human and environmental health, an amendment to the Act in 1980 exempted from regulation all waste from oil and gas exploration, development, and production. Despite close to 40 years of federal oversight of pollution created by countless industries, oil and gas operations have been subject to far more lax regulations. And although states can pass their own regulations to supplement the federal rule-making, this had not occurred in New York State.
The lead-up to the legislation
The recent legislation to close the fracking loophole in New York State was sponsored in 2019 by Senator Rachel May and Assemblyman Steve Engelbright. Lawmakers had been deadlocked on the issue since 2011, but through much hard work, political and public will, and a favorable complement of elected officials, after the bills finally passed both the New York State Senate and Assembly, they could move to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk, where they were signed into law in early August, 2020. According to EarthWorks, all oil and gas waste will be
- Subject to laboratory analysis to determine whether it has the characteristics of hazardous waste (i.e., ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, and toxicity)
- Subject wastes to clearer, stronger management regulations like processing, tracking and marking of loads, recordkeeping with a manifest system, reporting to DEC, and specific requirements for clean up in the case of a spill
In addition, the law ensures that waste is disposed of only at facilities equipped to safely handle it.
Now, even wastes like brine from conventional drilling operations must undergo laboratory analysis to determine whether they have characteristics consistent with hazardous materials.
Here’s a look back at our history of accepting fracking waste from Pennsylvania into New York State.
Visualizing a long history of oil and gas waste coming to New York State from Pennsylvania
FracTracker has annually mapped the flow of drilling waste from Pennsylvania to New York State.
To view the map a full screen, click here
Since 2011, nearly 29,000 barrels of fracking liquid waste (drilling fluids, fracturing fluids, produced waters, etc.), along with close to 645,000 tons of solid waste (drill cuttings—some of it radioactive, sludge, contaminated soils, etc.) from Pennsylvania drilling operations have been disposed of in New York State. For more references on radioactivity in drilling materials, explore this resource. Drilling waste reports available from 2010 through the present show a steady decline in waste sent to New York State, beginning in 2011. Nonetheless, New York’s landfills have received as much as 11,548 barrels of drilling waste, and 214,168 tons of solid waste in a given year.
PA DEP’s records are far from complete prior to 2016, however, with disposal destinations unknown for close to 2/3 of liquid waste (see yellow portions of the bar chart in Figure 1) generated between 2012 and 2015.
Figure 1. Pennsylvania’s liquid unconventional drilling waste disposal by state, 2010-2019
In more recent years, waste products were accounted for more accurately, as well as shipped to injection wells in Ohio.
On a relatively smaller scale, one can also see how West Virginia’s acceptance of Pennsylvania’s fracking waste has skyrocketed in 2018 and 2019, particularly in comparison to states other than Pennsylvania and Ohio (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Pennsylvania’s liquid unconventional drilling waste disposal by state (excluding Pennsylvania and Ohio), 2010-2019
In general, records indicate more solid waste disposal occurring within Pennsylvania over time, with Ohio accepting varying quantities from year to year, and New York State steadily receiving less over time (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Pennsylvania’s solid unconventional drilling waste disposal by state, 2010-2019
Now that the regulatory loophole has been closed, these numbers should drop to near zero. Data about waste coming from Pennsylvania to New York in the first half of 2020 support that assertion (Figures 4 and 5).
Figure 4. Pennsylvania’s liquid unconventional drilling waste disposal by state, January-May 2020
Figure 5. Pennsylvania’s solid unconventional drilling waste disposal by state, January-May 2020
FracTracker applauds New York State for closing the fracking waste loophole and in doing so, continuing to set high standards to protect its residents from the human and environmental impacts created by oil and gas extraction. We hope that other states will follow suit, and develop their own stringent standards to protect human and environmental health, in particular where federal legislation like RCRA has fallen woefully short.
By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
Feature photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial support by Lighthawk