The Science of Sustainability

Recycling Dirt: A New Niche in the Fracking Industry

  • share this article
  • Facebook
  • Email
A backhoe loads remediated dirt that will be trucked off and used as ground cover for the old landfill (photo by Michelle Kanu).

A backhoe loads remediated dirt that will be trucked off and used as ground cover for the old landfill (photo by Michelle Kanu).

Fracking for natural gas has been vilified for the millions of gallons of wastewater the process generates. But drilling gas wells thousands of feet into the ground also produces another huge stream of waste –tons of rock shavings and dirt tainted with oily chemicals.

To get a better picture of this, imagine using an electric drill to bore a hole into a thick block of wood. All of the wood shavings that fly out are called “cuttings.”

The same thing happens when energy companies drill for oil or natural gas thousands of feet underground — layers of dirt and rock cuttings are removed from the hole. These rock shavings are coated with an oily residue that rubs off the drill bit. It contains traces of metals and radiation that naturally exist deep in the earth.

Chris Elliott, President of Ohio Soil Recycling, uncovers the tank where he grows millions of tiny microbes that will clean out contaminated soil and drill cuttings (photo by Michelle Kanu).

Chris Elliott, President of Ohio Soil Recycling, uncovers the tank where he grows millions of tiny microbes that will clean out contaminated soil and drill cuttings (photo by Michelle Kanu).

Ohio requires that these dirty cuttings be disposed of in landfills, but now one company in the Buckeye State has stepped forward with the idea to recycle the material.

And that's where Chris Elliott, president of Ohio Soil Recycling, comes in.

At the company's headquarters, a trailer in the middle of an abandoned landfill in Columbus, I hop in Elliott’s pickup and he drives us down a winding dirt path to where a backhoe is scooping up massive piles of dirt and unloading it into a dump truck.

“Today our crew is actually moving remediated soil off of the treatment pad over here,” Elliott says. “They're taking it from the treatment pad and over to the final resting area, and placing it on the old landfill and compacting it now.”

This summer Ohio Soil Recycling became the first private company to get a permit from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to accept drill cuttings from the oil and gas industry. Elliott says drilling giant Chesapeake initially approached him with the idea a couple of years ago. He figured recycling rock cuttings would be a natural extension of his company's core business. Since 2000, the company has been using a process called bioremediation to clean up dirt that has been contaminated by oil or industrial spills.

Elliott explains the process first involves running the soil through a machine. “It kind of breaks the soil up, spreads it across a four-foot-wide belt in a very thin layer, and then we have a spray bar that sprays the microbes onto it.”

These piles of dirt are undergoing the bioremediation treatment process (photo by Michelle Kanu).

These piles of dirt are undergoing the bioremediation treatment process (photo by Michelle Kanu).

The microbes go to work, feasting on the oil, heavy metals, and chemical contaminants in the dirt. After the tiny organisms have consumed the food source and start to die off, Elliott says he tests the dirt to make sure it meets the EPA’s standards for residential use. The clean material is then deposited on a different part of the company property as ground cover for the old landfill.

Elliott says that by the time the dirt comes off their treatment pad, “We’re extremely confident with the lab results that we get off of it that we got it completely clean.”

But some environmental groups aren’t convinced that Ohio Soil Recycling can clean out all the contaminants in the rock cuttings from natural gas drilling.

"We do have a serious concern. Do they have the technology in place to treat for radioactivity, for heavy metals, and for these harsh chemicals?”

“We do have a serious concern,” says Melanie Houston, director of water policy for the Ohio Environmental Council. “Do they have the technology in place to treat for radioactivity, for heavy metals, and for these harsh chemicals?”

Houston says the EPA’s standards are too lax, and state law doesn't require Ohio Soil Recycling to test the cuttings thoroughly for radiation. Her group has been lobbying the state to enact stricter policies for testing drilling waste.

“The way that the law is stated, these materials are considered non-hazardous,” she says, “so it sort of set things up in a way that companies have an exemption and can treat this material in a way that they would treat non-hazardous material.”

But some scientists say the amount of radiation in those rock cuttings is unlikely to pose a threat to human health.

According to Jeffrey Dick, a geologist at Youngstown State University, the amount of radiation in the cuttings is really low. “It’s not concentrated enough to be a threat. But you have to remember that these radionuclides are trapped within the rock, and they're not being given access to pathways to our drinking water.”

“For the oil and gas industry, I think we really provide a great alternative that gives them a green solution they can tout that they're doing the green thing with their waste instead of just putting it into a landfill.”

Back at Ohio Soil Recycling, Elliott points toward a patch of land just below the freeway and shows me where the recycled drill cuttings will go.

“The lowest area out there is where we would be placing them, knowing that then they would have soil put on top of them so that it could be vegetated and finished.”

Recycling drill cuttings is still uncharted ground. Only a few companies in Texas have experimented with the process, and so far Elliott's company has only done a test run of cleaning cuttings from Chesapeake. Now that he has the EPA's blessing, Elliott hopes drilling waste will bring a steady stream of revenue in the future.

"With landfilling being the only option for cuttings previously, you know you were sending the waste to a landfill, the waste wasn't being cleaned,” he says. “For the oil and gas industry, I think we really provide a great alternative that gives them a green solution they can tout that they're doing the green thing with their waste instead of just putting it into a landfill.”

Elliott is already looking to expand. He’s planning to partner with another company that has more capital and name the new business Shale Recycling. He says he and his new partner are already scouting out areas in eastern Ohio where they plan to open future recycling sites.

Related

Explore: , , , , , , , , , ,

Category: Chemistry, Energy, Environment, Radio

  • share this article
  • Facebook
  • Email
Michelle Kanu

About the Author ()

Michelle Kanu is a reporter and producer with WCPN 90.3 ideastream. She got her start in print journalism writing a weekly column for the Daily Californian at the University of California, Berkeley. After college, Michelle spent a few years working with youth in tutoring and college access programs before moving to Cleveland in 2009 and getting into radio. When she’s not anchoring WCPN’s evening newscast, Michelle is canvassing the state, reporting on Ohio’s burgeoning natural gas industry.
  • Anne Caruso

    I think it's ridiculous for the state not to test the waste for the actual levels of radiation and pollution instead of taking the word of the industry that it isn't too bad. That is not how to provide for pubic health. Below is an article about radioactivity in a Pennslyvannia creek from fracking waste being dumped there. Here's a segment from the article:
    "The radium, along with salts such as bromide, came from the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility about 45 miles (72 kilometers) east of Pittsburgh, a plant that treats wastewater from oil and gas drilling.

    “The absolute levels [of radioactivity] that we found are much higher than what you allow in the U.S. for any place to dump radioactive material,” Avner Vengosh, a professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University and co-author of the study, said in an interview. “The radium will be bio-accumulating."
    ———————————————————————

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-10-02/radiation-in-pennsylvania-creek-seen-as-legacy-of-frackin.html

    Radiation in Pennsylvania Creek Seen as Legacy of Fracking
    By Jim Efstathiou Jr. – Oct 2, 2013 9:00 AM ET
    Naturally occurring radiation brought to the surface by gas drillers has been detected in aPennsylvania creek that flows into the Allegheny River, illustrating the risks of wastewater disposal from the boom in hydraulic fracturing.

    Sediment in Blacklick Creek contained radium in concentrations 200 times above normal, or background levels, according to the study, published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The radium, along with salts such as bromide, came from the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility about 45 miles (72 kilometers) east of Pittsburgh, a plant that treats wastewater from oil and gas drilling.

    “The absolute levels that we found are much higher than what you allow in the U.S. for any place to dump radioactive material,” Avner Vengosh, a professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University and co-author of the study, said in an interview. “The radium will be bio-accumulating. You eventually could get it in the fish.”

    Hydraulic fracturing or fracking has been blamed for contaminating streams and private water wells after spills from wastewater holding ponds or leaks from faulty gas wells. Today’s report exposes the risks of disposing of the surging volumes of waste from gas fracking. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is developing new standards for disposing of gas drilling waste.

    Commercial Treatment

    For decades Pennsylvania disposed of wastewater from oil and gas drilling at commercial treatment plants that discharged into rivers and streams. A natural-gas boom bought on by fracking in a geologic formation called the Marcellus Shale led to a 570 percent increase in the volume of drilling wastewater since 2004, according to Brian Lutz, assistant professor of biogeochemistry at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.

    In fracking, millions of gallons of chemically treated water and sand are forced underground to shatter rock and free trapped gas. As much as 80 percent of the fluid returns to the surface along with radium, and salts such as sodium, calcium, magnesium, chlorine, bromide.

    Water treatment “has been Pennsylvania’s go-to method for decades,” Lutz said in an interview. With fracking “we were seeing these systems being overwhelmed. They were just taking too much waste leading to water quality problems.”

    Monitoring Needed

    While earlier studies have identified radiation in drilling wastewater, today’s report is the first to examine the long-term environmental impacts of dumping it in rivers. Proper treatment can remove a substantial portion of the radioactivity in wastewater, though it does not remove many of the other salts, including bromide, Vengosh said.

    “Our findings indicate that disposal of wastewater from both conventional and unconventional oil and gas operations has degraded the surface water and sediments,” Nathaniel Warner, a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth College and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “This could be a long-term legacy of radioactivity.”

    Blacklick Creek is a tributary of the Conemaugh River, which flows into the Allegheny. In 2011, regulators found high levels of bromides in western Pennsylvania rivers, prompting some plants that supply Pittsburgh and other cities to change the way they treat drinking water.

    Bromide, which is not toxic, can combine with disinfectants used at drinking water treatment plants to produce cancer-causing compounds. Radium is a naturally occurring metal that can accumulate in plants and animals and be transferred through the food chain to humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

    Voluntary Request

    “We’re getting better at reducing the amount of wastewater produced by shale gas wells, but the total wastewater volume continues to grow rapidly,” Lutz said. “There simply isn’t disposal infrastructure in place.”

    In 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection asked Marcellus Shale drillers to voluntarily stop taking wastewater to the Josephine plant and 14 others that had yet to meet new discharge standards.

    Aquatech agreed in a May settlement with the state not to treat Marcellus Shale waste at Josephine and two of its other plants until they are upgraded to new standards. The company also agreed to spend up to $30 million to upgrade the three plants and to pay an $83,000 penalty.

    The Josephine plant, which was acquired in May by Aquatech International Corp., stopped treating Marcellus Shale waste after the 2011 state advisory was issued, according to Devesh Mittal, vice president and general manager of the shale gas division at the closely held company.

    “There’s a very brief period of time when unconventional was treated,” Mittal, who had not seen today’s study, said in an interview. “But that kind of stopped as a result of the DEP notification that came in April of 2011.”

    Patrick Creighton, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, said he had not seen the report and could not comment.

    To contact the reporter on this story: Jim Efstathiou Jr. in New York atjefstathiou@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net