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Citizens gear up for drilling waste hearing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Citizen groups are gearing up for a public hearing this evening on a bill aimed at exempting from West Virginia's landmark landfill tonnage limits waste from the boom in natural gas drilling in the state's Marcellus Shale region.

The House Judiciary Committee scheduled the public hearing on the bill (HB4411) for 5 p.m. at the House chamber.

Activists and citizens from the Marcellus region were at the Capitol already for the West Virginia Environmental Council's annual "E-Day" lobbying event.

The bill, supported by the state Department of Environmental Protection, would help state regulators quell an ongoing controversy over the dumping of huge amounts of gas-drilling waste -- in some cases in violation of existing landfill waste caps.

"The caps were sacred, and DEP has done away with them with the stroke of a pen," said Norm Steenstra, who was environmental council's lead lobbyist two decades ago when the Legislature passed tough new garbage laws.

Steenstra referred to a January 2013 memo in which DEP allowed landfills accepting drilling waste to exceed their current monthly caps if they are seeking new state permits to increase those caps. The new legislation would essentially write DEP's action into state law.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman previously described the issue as "kind of an emergency situation" in which some landfills were in danger of exceeding their legal tonnage caps.

Scott Mandirola, director of DEP's Division of Water and Waste Management, said that under the existing tonnage caps, "There aren't enough landfills to take the material" from the state's natural gas drilling boom.

As part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's "Horizontal Drilling Act," passed during a special session in December 2011, lawmakers tried to encourage disposal of solid wastes from drilling operations in permitted landfills.

Prior to the law, some drilling companies disposed of these materials on the drilling sites, sometimes without the consent of the surface landowner, and sometimes without liners and other environmental protections required of modern landfills.

The 2011 law said that solid wastes from drilling had to be sent to permitted landfills or could be disposed of at drilling sites if the surface landowner consented.

But, the new law created a conflict with monthly landfill tonnage caps created by lawmakers two decades ago as a safeguard against the creation of "mega-dumps" that proposed to bring millions of tons of out-of-state garbage to West Virginia.

Now, though, gas-drilling wastes represent nearly a third of the materials being accepted at the six West Virginia landfills that are taking in such wastes, according to data from DEP for the period from July 2012 to July 2013. Those landfills are in Brooke, Harrison, Ohio, Wetzel and Wood counties.

As originally proposed, the legislation at issue would allow landfills to "lawfully receive" drilling wastes in amounts "above the monthly tonnage limits," provided that drilling wastes were dumped in separate parts of the landfills.

The bill is pending in the House Judiciary Committee after passing the House Energy Committee.

Environmental groups are concerned that, among other things, previous actions by DEP and the agency-backed legislation ignores provisions in state law giving local citizens more of a say in decisions about the size of landfills in their communities.

Don Garvin, current lead lobbyist for the environmental council, said that one bright spot is an Energy Committee amendment that would require the installation of radiation monitors at landfills accepting drilling wastes because of concerns over potential radioactivity of those wastes.

Garvin said his organization wants lawmakers to require separate landfills for drilling wastes, and to require drilling companies to pay for the construction and operation of those landfills.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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