Panel to review Michigan’s disposal of radioactive materials

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder plans to create an expert panel to review how low-activity radioactive materials are disposed of following criticism of the state’s waste-handling policies.

Environmental groups expressed concern last week that a plant in southeast Michigan would be accepting shipments of radioactive sludge from hydraulic fracturing operations in Pennsylvania. Officials with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality plan to review the state’s criteria for accepting and handling such wastes with a panel of experts.

EQ, the private company operating the Wayne Disposal facility near Belleville, has said it will stop taking the material in question until Snyder’s panel has a chance to complete its review. The operation has been accepting this kind of material since 2006 — during the Democratic administration of Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

“We remain deeply committed to protecting public health and Michigan’s precious water resources,” Snyder said in a statement released Monday. “We believe the standard in Michigan remains protective of our people and our natural resources, but this advisory group of diverse experts, similar to the assembly that developed our standards, can provide an important science-based and current review to make sure that’s still the case.”

Each state has its own standard for what kinds of materials it will allow to be disposed of in landfills. Fracking wastes are termed technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials. Michigan’s standard for these wastes is 50 picocuries per gram of radium.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines naturally occurring radioactive materials wastes as being “radioactive residues from the extraction, treatment and purification of minerals, petroleum products or other substances.”

“Wayne Disposal has worked cooperatively with the MDEQ and the local community for many years and will continue to support a strong working relationship with them based on sound science and transparency,” Simon Bell, executive vice president of operations for EQ, said in Monday statement. “In this tradition, we look forward to supporting this important regulatory review. We take pride in our proven ability as one of the few companies with the expertise to safely manage this material.”

The United States generates hundreds of millions of metric tons of naturally occurring radioactive waste, with much of it containing “only trace amounts of radiation” that “are part of our everyday landscape,” according to the EPA. They are generated by activities ranging from mining to municipal drinking water treatment.

Last week, environmental groups protested Michigan’s acceptance of the fracking waste from Pennsylvania.

“This is a wake-up call for Michiganders that all fracking operations and the impacts on people are connected,” said LuAnne Kozma, campaign director for the Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan, in a press release. “This particular waste is coming from a county in Pennsylvania where the residents are living among over 800 frack wells, four impoundments and other frack industry complexes, all of which is affecting their health and well-being.”

But Dave Crumrine, EQ’s director of corporate marketing, said the perception that the fracking material was too radioactive for Pennsylvania to handle is incorrect. That state, he said, typically disposed of its technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials in its own landfills. But the state has exceeded a cap on the amount it can send to its landfills this year.

And Pennsylvania’s standard for putting such material in landfills is 270 picocuries per gram of radium.

Despite this, Snyder’s Democratic gubernatorial challenger Mark Schauer criticized the governor’s action on Monday.

“Michigan cannot be the repository of hazardous waste that other states will not accept,” Schauer said in a Monday statement. “The state’s action in authorizing hazardous radioactive waste to be dumped here is utterly and completely incompatible with everything Pure Michigan should stand for. As the epicenter of the Great Lakes — the largest fresh water system in the world — state government has a unique and solemn responsibility to protect that Public Trust.”

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