Toxic Crossings

Part of the Knowing Our Waters Project

By Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research and Engagement

Maps by Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator

A common assertion heard by proponents of citizen science is that concerned citizens are empowered by participating in data collection projects. But many studies have shown that the capacity for empowerment in citizen science can vary widely depending on how monitoring programs are established and managed. For instance, when volunteers are enlisted to collect data for studies designed by researchers in far-off laboratories, local issues of importance may not remain central to why data is collected in the first place, or how data is later used. Residents who live in at-risk communities may provide many hands of free labor for this kind of participatory science, but their ability to steer core research questions can be limited.

This installment of the Knowing Our Waters project highlights how empowerment can come from adopting a model of citizen science that places decision making powers into the hands of those who must contend with complex and evolving environmental issues at the local level. The article focuses on the New York Water Sentinels. Like many water monitoring efforts in the Marcellus Shale, the primary objective of the Water Sentinels is to obtain baseline data across their watersheds in the event of future pollution impacts. However, as this article will show, the flexibility of the Water Sentinels’ citizen science model also affords opportunity to ask new questions as knowledge of these watersheds expands. In this case, questions that pertain to the safety and legality of landfills and wastewater treatment plants in New York that are actively receiving shale gas drilling waste from neighboring Pennsylvania.

New York’s Shale Gas Waste Problem

“You can see it’s kind of gurgling,” the person next to me comments as we peer over the edge of the access hatch to a nearly 40-foot tall vat of stewing sludge. The smell is overwhelming, and we feel a bit uneasy about the rope and emergency flotation device hanging beside us on the railing. This particular container is but one in a complex arrangement of pipes, pumps and tanks that process the regular flow of leachate (liquid waste outflows) from the nearby Steuben County Landfill in Bath, New York. A dozen people stand below us on the next platform, listening intently as the plant manager describes how drainage from the landfill enters the system on one end, gets piped through the Village of Bath’s sewage system, and eventually discharged into the Cohocton River, a tributary of the upper Susquehanna River watershed.

  • Our tour of the leachate treatment plant was organized by a local chapter of the NY Water Sentinels, a grassroots coalition of concerned citizens and environmental advocacy groups that conduct baseline monitoring in the Souther Tier counties of New York with assistance from the Sierra Club.

The Steuben County Landfill is actually the former site of a decades-old township dump, originally constructed without a proper leachate treatment system. In 1995, when the landfill sought expansions, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) assisted the county in building a treatment plant that would not only have the capacity to process leachate from this landfill, but also wastewater from other sources in response to increasing demand. One growing market in recent years is Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale gas drilling industry. Despite New York State’s 2008 drilling moratorium, and the more recent December 2014 ban on hydraulic fracturing, a recent report calculates that more than 460,000 tons of shale gas drilling solid waste, as well as 23,000 barrels of liquid waste, have entered the state since 2010. These numbers are based on self-proclaimed incomplete reports from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Landfills in New York State that have accepted shale gas waste from Pennsylvania include the Chemung County Landfill (Lowman, NY), Casella Waste Systems (Painted Post, NY), Seneca Meadows Landfill (Waterloo, NY), Allied Waste Systems (Niagara Falls, NY), Hyland Facility Association (Angelica, NY), and the Hakes Landfills (Painted Post, NY). Among these facilities, the Chemung County Landfill has accepted the most solid waste, at nearly 200,000 tons. Hyland Landfill and Hakes Landfills have each accepted over 100,000 tons of drill cuttings. These amounts do not include the tens of thousands of tons of drill cuttings used as “daily cover” – the layer of compressed soil laid on top of a landfill’s daily waste.

Waste flows from Pennsylvania drilling sites to Landfills in New York
(click corner arrow to expand map and for additional data layers)

Drill cutting are highly valued by landfill operators. Their density takes about one-forth the space of conventional waste, but can be charged at the same per-ton disposal fee. The volume of waste accepted by New York landfills have thus risen rapidly in tandem with Pennsylvania’s expanding shale gas industry.

For instance, in realizing this new revenue stream, Casella requested and received approval from the NY DEC to expand the volume of waste at Chemung County landfill from 120,000 tons to 180,000 tons per year, and began diverting Chemung County’s less valuable waste to other landfills. Casella began accepting Marcellus Shale drilling waste at Chemung in 2009. By 2010, over half the total waste received at the landfill came from shale gas drilling sites. A new proposal is now being considered that would expand the landfill’s capacity from 180,000 tons to 417,000 tons per year (Mantius, 2014). Meanwhile, Casella has also applied to the NY DEC to expand Hyland Landfill’s annual volume of accepted waste by more than 60% to 153,000 tons per year (Donohue, 2015).

Regulatory Loopholes

A number of regulatory loopholes allow shale gas waste to travel into New York. According to DEC regulations, “drilling fluids, produced waters, and other wastes associated with the exploration, development, or production of crude oil, natural gas or geothermal energy,” are not considered hazardous solid waste, and are fair game for all of NY landfills. Gas drilling waste is also exempt from New York’s Low Level Radioactive Waste Laws that govern Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM). These rules were originally designed to govern conventional gas extraction in the western part of the state, but have not been updated to reflect changes brought on by shale gas.

This is a major concern for residents given that, according to a USGS study, NORM levels from the Cambrian-Devonion shale layers (of which Marcellus is one) far exceeds those of other shale formations in the United States. In fact, between 2009 and 2012, radiation alarms at Pennsylvania’s landfills were triggered more than 1,000 times due to waste loads from shale gas drilling operations (Puko, 2013). In a more recent incident, Range Resources confirmed that drilling waste was rejected by a landfill in Washington County, PA, due to high radiation levels. This waste is presently being stored at drilling sites until a proper destination can be found (Hopey, 2014).

  • Landfill operators argue that radiation detectors are an effective deterrent against accepting inappropriate waste. However, many argue that landfills make false assumptions about what is delivered to their facilities, and that they are monitor the wrong indicators. Landfills typically measure for gamma rays, which are easily detected at their entry gates. However, Marcellus Shale drill cuttings are known to contain low levels of radium 226 and radium 228, both of which are emitters of the far more harmful alpha and beta rays.

A recent study cited in the NY SGEIS shows gross alpha and beta levels in brine from twelve wells drilled in Schuyler County and Steuben County to be as high as 123,000 pi/L – more than 8,000 times the EPA permitted levels of gross alpha and beta in drinking water supplies (5 pCi/L), and 267 times the allowed in wastewater discharges (60 pCi/L).

Landfill operators also assert that waste haulers are only delivering drill cuttings to their facilities, which are considered unlikely to contain low levels of radioactive materials. However, Casella also operates processing centers at the Hyland Landfill, and another at a landfill in McKean County, Pennsylvania, for solidifying drilling muds and liquids. A common practice at these and other facilities is to add bulking agents, such as sawdust and wood chips, to turn muds into solids, which can then be shipped to New York landfills. Additional materials that fall under “solid waste” include contaminated soil from chemical spills, rubber well pad liners, and other industry-associated materials.

The Steuben County landfill does not accept drilling waste of any kind at present. However, one fact is known about the facility – its overbuilt wastewater treatment plant generates revenue for the county by accepting excess leachate from neighboring landfills, including more than 2.2 million gallons worth from Hyland landfill, and nearly 2 million gallons from Hakes Landfill, between July 2012 and April 2013 (Mantius, 2013). During our Water Sentinels arranged tour, we visit the treatment plant’s control room. The Steuben County Commissioner of Public Works joins us and offers some assurance of the facility’s safety:

I’ve talked to Casella, and I’ve talked to the DEC. They are required, and I’ve been told by everybody, to provide the radioactivity report to DEC.

County Commissioner

Nonetheless, many concerns are heard throughout the room. Is the treatment facility designed to handle leachate from landfills accepting Marcellus Shale waste? Are there adequate mechanisms in place to prevent pollution of the Cohocton River? Are you testing the leachate from other landfills for radiation? Does this include gamma, alpha, and beta ray monitoring? These are some of the detailed and highly informed questions raised by my fellow tour members.

The NY Water Sentinels

The origins of New York Water Sentinels can be traced back to the Concerned Citizens for Cataraugus County (CCCC), an organization that has worked on issues ranging from stopping large windmill farms to opposing new landfills. Beginning in 2011, the regional Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club became interested in supporting a water monitoring network to prepare for the possibility of shale gas drilling in New York.

The Sierra Club provided a seed grant through its National Water Sentinels program to assist the CCCC in acquiring equipment and hosting training sessions with Dickinson College’s Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (ALLARM). ALLARM, detailed elsewhere in the Knowing Our Waters project, is a prominent service providers in the water monitoring community and has 25 years of experience teaching “study design” workshops to assist communities in identifying why they are monitoring, how they will assess quality control, and what they will do with their data. Although training organizations like ALLARM may do the legwork to select appropriate parameters and tools for monitoring, the aim is to empower community groups to adapt these resources to meet their own objectives.

Over the next two years volunteers in other regions of New York were brought on board by passing out flyers in town meetings and by posting in local newspapers. The NY Water Sentinels also enlisted members of other environmental organizations, such as the Coalition to Protect New York, Keuka Lake Watershed Acton Committee, the Federation of Fly Fishers, and the Citizens for Protection of Health and Environment. Their monitoring network now extends into watersheds in Allegany, Broome, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Chemung, Chenango, Cortland, Delaware, Otsego, Steuben, Sullivan, Tioga, and Yates Counties.

Map of NY Water Sentinels monitoring locations relative to landfills, treatment plants, and conventional wells (click corner arrow to expand map and for additional data layers)

Using ALLARM’s monitoring protocol, 160 NY Water Sentinel volunteers have made more than 1,500 visits to document conditions at 125 stream sites. Indicators measured at these sites include total dissolved solids (conductivity), temperature, stream depth, and visual assessments. Samples are also sent every six months to a state certified laboratory for testing of barium and strontium levels. NY Water Sentinels data is managed by the network, and is also delivered to ALLARM and Penn State’s Shale Network on a regular basis for additional analysis. (Learn more about monitoring protocols and data management practices)

Democratic Governing Structures

The NY Water Sentinels have no paid staff or dedicated facilities. Instead, its organizational structure is one of overlapping committees populated by volunteers who participate in the monitoring network. For instance, the “Steering Committee” is the executive body of the NY Water Sentinels with responsibility for administering the organization and setting the overall agenda of the monitoring network. This includes establishing new affiliations with outside partners, determining where future training will occur, making changes to monitoring protocols and how to use data, as well as what political or legal initiatives the network may engage. Steering Committee members are elected annually by Water Sentinels chapters, but also consist of members from the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter office who serve an advisory role.

Day-to-day governance of the NY Water Sentinels falls upon the “Coordinators Committee.” Its purpose is to implementing the directives of the Steering Committee, and in the process maximize inclusion of Water Sentinels volunteers by soliciting input on changes to the network’s mission and monitoring strategies. The Coordinator Committee also meets weekly by phone to discuss topics ranging from what they’ve learned from recent regulatory reports, equipment maintenance, data management, quality assurance and quality control (QA/QC), and local finances. Other working groups that meet periodically include an External Communications Committee, a Science Committee, a Finance Committee, a Legal Committee, a Fundraising Committee, and a Data Management Committee – all are populated by volunteers in the network.

The NY Water Sentinels also retain the help of many outside experts to assist the Steering Committee and Coordinator Committee with different tasks. The legal committee is advised by no less than three practicing attorneys, two of which are also members of local NY Water Sentinels chapters and active in ongoing litigation on zoning rules, water withdrawals, and waste handling practices at landfills and treatment plants. The Science Committee regularly consults with professors of biological science, geology, and environmental studies at four different universities. The director of ALLARM also sits on the Science Committee. Since 2012, the NY Water Sentinels have hosted annual “summits” at Binghamton University to bring together its committees, members, and advisors to review its accomplishments and to determine future endeavors.

Members of the NY Water Sentinels describe their concerns about shale gas development’s impacts on water quality, the problems of landfill waste, and how they got involved in monitoring.

Empowerment through Citizen Science

I asked one of the Steering Committee members how the extensive governing structure evolved over time. He told me: “The first year we spent a lot of time getting the QA/QC to work. We built the technical infrastructure. The second year we worked on getting the coordinator groups working – the social infrastructure. Now we need to do more outreach into challenging areas, to develop that sense of community. We needed to recognize that we’re not a full-fledged organization. And we’re received support from other environmental organizations sending volunteers to our groups. Our value is to work at the local level. We have to make sure we are embedded in the community” (Interview, October 2013).

The Water Sentinels’ model of citizen science has indeed fostered a high level of participation for its volunteers who clearly have a strong role in shaping the objectives of the monitoring network. Nowhere is this more evident than when a number of volunteers expanded their baseline monitoring sites to include locations near landfills accepting waste from Pennsylvania. In May, 2014, one coordinator from the CCCC told me how this evolved:

At the Hyland Landfill, we had two people who happened to be Water Sentinel volunteers who wanted to do more. So I told them what to do, where to go and how to do it and they had their meters. So they started testing the wastewater from the Wellsville Water Treatment plant where the landfill leachate goes. And then they started testing the streams coming out of the landfills in the same way we were testing streams in the Water Sentinels program. We didn’t find any elevated radioactivity from the Wellsville Water Treatment plant discharge, but we did find elevated radioactivity in a stream running off from the landfill at a designated outfall.

Water Sentinels Coordinator

Official leachate tests of the Hyland Landfill are reported as 5 pCi/L. By comparison, samples collected from runoff of the Hyland Landfill by Water Sentinels volunteers have exceeding 9 pCi/L. These findings corroborated data from other facilities. For instance, after protests from residents contesting expansion plans at Chemung County Landfill, the DEC began requiring twice-annual testing at the facility for radioactivity. Since testing began in 2012, results show that the landfill’s leachate is becoming slightly more radioactive with each sampling collection. Even more worrisome, a Syracuse-based laboratory plead guilty in July 2013 to falsifying more than 3,300 of its clients water and soil tests, many of which were of leachate from Casella’s landfills.

This has had a measurable effect on how the Water Sentinels envision their present and future mission. At a Coordinator Committee a few months later, one person commented, “What we’re learning here around this landfill point towards protocols we should develop to watch these other landfills more closely.” Volunteers have since collected samples at the Bath wastewater treatment plant for nearly three years, and will begin monitoring around the Village of Wellsville’s wastewater treatment plant in June of 2015.

A customized protocol for monitoring around landfills and treatment facilities is now under consideration by the Steering Committee, and some groups have purchase equipment suited to the task, such as turbidity tubes for detecting water clarity around outflow pipes. The Ithaca, NY, based Community Science Institute, a nonprofit laboratory that oversees another extensive network of water monitoring volunteer in the region, has offered their services to run detailed radionuclide analysis of landfill outflow samples until a steady funding source is identified.

  • There is also a growing confidence around the validity of their findings. At the 2014 annual summit ALLARM noted, “The Water Sentinels data has been our favorite data to use because it’s so well organized. It’s a beautiful data set. It’s informing a lot of our Pennsylvania groups for how they should manage their data.” In May 2014, Water Sentinels data was referenced in testimony at a New York State Senate hearing on the risks of accepting hydraulic fracturing by-products in publicly owned landfills.

A Growing Presence, Increased Responsibility

By many accounts, the Water Sentinels learned the importance of being proactive on issues of volunteer participation, effective data management, and public outreach by observing the struggles of earlier formed monitoring networks in Pennsylvania. The accomplishments and expanding mission of the Water Sentinels is admirable given their limited financial resources and complete reliance on volunteers.

Besides recent inclusions of landfill and treatment plant monitoring, over 150 other stream sites are to be tested in 2015 as part of their baseline dat collection program. Each of these sites costs $40 in certified lab testing annually. The Water Sentinels have plans to add 30 additional sites and offer two new training programs in 2015, with an estimated 15 new teams added during each training event. Monitoring kits for each new team cost approximately $120. These combined monitoring efforts, as well as training and outreach programs, must be covered by a 2015 budget of about $20,000 – a relatively small amount compared to similar sized monitoring networks in the Marcellus Shale. Funding constraints are particularly challenging in that, despite ongoing financial support from the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, the Sierra Club’s National Water Sentinels program was defunded in 2014.

Equally impressive is the NY Water Sentinels’ commitment to a model of citizen science that maintains mechanisms for democratic decision-making in defining research agendas. In this case, as word spread about the possible risks of landfills, volunteer benefited from the network’s flexibility when turning their attention to landfills and wastewater treatment plants. These individuals became empowered and educated through the processes of water monitoring, and by connecting with fellow concerned citizens in their communities. Monitoring volunteers are bringing this evolved understanding of environmental governance to bear to address complex and evolving environmental issues. As another Water Sentinels coordinator noted:

Getting people involved at the community level in water quality is an important facet of making a difference. We always incorporated that as part of our discourse. So the efforts around the Hyland landfill illustrate to me how important outreach is to these areas.

Water Sentinels Coordinator

Organizing group tours of landfill effluent treatment plants, like the one in Steuben County, is an extension of this strategy to make monitoring efforts meaningful for a broader community. These tours are opportunities to learn about the facilities, but also politically strategic in making county officials aware of the Water Sentinels, and their presence as environmental stewards in their community.

Nevertheless, baseline water monitoring continues to be the critical charge of the Water Sentinels’ mission. Many environmental advocates have been quick to point out that, if gas prices rebound from current record lows, proponents of drilling may apply enough pressure to the NY legislature to reverse the ban. The ban may thus provide a momentary respite to establish more baseline watershed data, as well as time to expand the number of monitoring sites. On the other hand, the ban may also create a climate of complacency in public debates about the industry. Collecting water quality samples around landfills may bring attention to the continuing risks posed by the shale gas industry in New York State.

For more information, please contact Kirk Jalbert: