Strange things have been happening around Rostraver. One of Jack Kruell’s neighbors died of Ewing sarcoma. Another, Kruell said, is ill and “on the way out.” Overnight, the plants in his backyard died and sometimes when he mows his lawn, a silvery dust floats through the air.

In “The Matrix,” Kruell said, you can choose a red pill or blue: to carry on as normal or confront the truth. So in 2013, he decided to buy a Geiger counter to detect radiation.

In the decade since, water tests at Kruell’s house have revealed a telling combination of pollutants: unsafe levels of radiation, heavy metals and volatile compounds including benzene — a carcinogen which studies have connected with bone cancers like leukemia.

At the same time, Duquesne University’s Director of Environmental Research, John Stolz, was testing half a mile away at Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill, on the opposite side of Speers Run, a tributary of Monongahela River. He found telltale isotopes of radioactive radium, which in prior years would have ended up in the area’s drinking water supply.

Westmoreland Sanitary — which, along with parent company Noble Environment did not respond to emails and calls requesting comment — has accepted solid fracking waste since 2010 and has often failed to dispose of it safely, leaving waste in uncovered piles, discharging contaminated runoff into the river or allowing it to leak around the site, according to inspection reports.

“There are natural sources of radium,” Stolz said. But the levels and types of radium detected in the Monongahela and Belle Vernon could only, he said, have come from the landfill.

“To deal with it is highly uncomfortable,” said Kruell one recent evening from an Eat’n Park in Rostraver, Westmoreland County, about an hour south of Pittsburgh. “It breaks your safe space.” From a black cardboard steak box marked “KEEP FROZEN,” Kruell fanned letters, maps and test results across the table. “I didn’t know I’d become a landfill authority.”

A man sitting at a table with papers in front of him.
Jack Kruell sifts through a cardboard steak box full of letters, maps and test results related to the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill on Feb. 26, at an Eat’n Park in his town of Rostraver. Kruell has been sounding the alarm about test results showing heavy metals, chemicals and toxins in the shadow of the mountainous landfill. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Westmoreland Sanitary is one of 32 Pennsylvania landfills that accept solid fracking waste (mostly earth removed from bore holes called drill cuttings). Fracking also creates wastewater: a combination of injected drill fluid and removed groundwater (known in fracking as “produced” water).

“I believe the industry does a really good job,” of dealing with waste responsibly, said Ben Wallace, chief operating officer of Penneco Environmental Solutions, a Delmont-based company that specializes in disposing of oil and gas industry waste. “I don’t view it as a problem,” he said. “We all use energy. We’re all codependent on the carbon economy. Every single thing we touch is made out of plastic.”

Fracking waste has been linked to a number of cancers, organ and reproductive diseases.

In January, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] permitted Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill to trial a new management strategy: evaporating and trying to treat water contaminated with solid fracking waste. The same month in Plum, a suburb east of Pittsburgh, a proposal to open a new injection well for fracking wastewater hundreds of yards from homes was dealt a legal setback in Commonwealth Court.

While the health impacts of living near fracking sites are increasingly well documented, Kruell and residents of other communities nearer Pittsburgh say their public health is put at risk while waste management companies search for ways to deal with the industry’s discards.

Through trees outside the Eat’n Park window, the landfill looks like another hill over the Monongahela River. Kruell is skeptical the new evaporator will make a difference after over a decade of mishandling. “You can’t correct it,” he said. “The genie is out of the bottle.”

‘Like landfill tea’

As fracking has spread across the state, the industry’s waste output has grown in step. In 2023, Pennsylvania fracking wells generated 1 million tons of solid waste, according to DEP data. Liquid waste — mostly produced water but also oil and drill fluid — amounted to almost 7.5 billion gallons.

Actual figures may be higher. A 2023 study from Duquesne and the University of Pittsburgh, which found that in 2019 solid waste was undercounted in the DEP’s reports from at least 11 landfills when compared to each facility’s own filings.

Fracking waste brings pollutants up from the earth, mixed with the industrial chemicals used to drill.

The Marcellus Shale formation extending under much of Appalachia contains uranium. Over time, radioactive isotopes decay into the heavy metals found in Westmoreland landfill’s leachate, the water that washes off waste. As it decays, most uranium turns to radium and then radon, a carcinogen.

A man pointing to a piece of paper.
Jack Kruell points to levels of radium in the test results from his time investigating pollution attributed to the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill on Feb. 26. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Drill fluid is mostly water but often includes lubricant composed of per- and polyfluorinated substances, or PFAS — a collection of so-called “forever chemicals” linked to birth defects, plus liver and immune system damage. Carcinogenic benzene is both used in drill fluid and found naturally in the Marcellus.

Some liquid waste is reused for future fracking, or in places like Plum, reinjected back to a similar depth in the earth at separate drill pads. Until public outcry led to a statewide moratorium in 2016, some produced water from fracking was also sprayed on roads.

Solid waste, conversely, becomes an intractable problem at landfills like Westmoreland when it rains and runoff leachate is collected, “like landfill tea,” according to James Cirilano, a community advocate with ProtectPT, a Penn Township nonprofit set up in 2014 to protect against the environmental damage from fossil fuel activity.

“It picks up all the nasty stuff and is supposed to be contained but it never can be,” said Cirilano. “They’ve got to put it somewhere, so they’ve been putting it at the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill.”

‘Where is it going to go?’

Under the plan approval issued Jan. 8, the landfill’s operator, Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill LLC, can build a plant to boil the leachate on site. The liquid will first be filtered, treated to remove any oil, heated with gas then the evaporate will be filtered, cooled and released into the air at the landfill.

“DEP’s modeling and calculations show that any [radiation-producing particles] emitted into the air will not pose a health risk,” Lauren Camarda, a department spokesperson, wrote in an email, adding six radiation monitors will be placed at the landfill and “analyzed regularly.” The evaporator does not have a long-term permit, but Westmoreland Sanitary can construct and temporarily operate the evaporator so its emissions can be tested.

Kruell said he’s not convinced of the effectiveness of the treatment process, particularly in the Mon Valley where frequent inversions can trap air pollution under a layer of warmer air. Cirilano said the landfill's operators have a record of poor compliance. “We don’t believe this is a proven technology and we believe that these are proven careless actors,” he said, adding the landfill has entered five consent orders for violating its waste permit since 2020.

Legal documents and DEP emails show that the evaporator permit came after a series of failed attempts to effectively manage leachate at the site.

Violations were recorded in almost a dozen inspections during 2019 and 2020; “several loads of drilling mud” were left exposed for six months. Sometimes leachate was found pooling or leaking from different parts of the landfill, and once, a hose filling trucks with leachate to be transported elsewhere caused an “uncontrolled release” of the toxic liquid.

Before the landfill began trucking leachate offsite, it piped it to Belle Vernon’s sewage plant for treatment, from which water was released into the Monongahela River. When Guy Kruppa, then municipal superintendent, discovered that the landfill waste was passing through the sewage plant largely untreated and impairing the plant itself, he sought an injunction to close the pipe.

In an email to the municipality in April 2019, Donald Leone, a DEP official, suggested an agreement “where the landfill … will agree to pay any penalties for effluent violation at the Belle Vernon plant,” in return for keeping the pipe open.

The municipality declined and Westmoreland began trucking leachate away, but inspections suggest that even after this was permitted, leachate could not be removed as quickly as it accumulated. During one August 2022 inspection of a leak, DEP officials watched as one of the landfill’s 21,000-gallon leachate tanks began overflowing out of an access lid.

A hillside with a power line on it and two holding tanks in the distance.
Tanks at the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill on Feb. 26, in Rostraver. During one August 2022 inspection of a leak, DEP officials watched as one of the landfill’s 21,000-gallon tanks began overflowing out of an access lid. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

“Trucking has its own risks and is not an appropriate long-term option,” wrote Camarda in a statement defending the evaporator, which she said “would eliminate risks of spills, impacts and traffic associated with trucking leachate offsite.”

ProtectPT appealed the evaporator’s plan permit with the state Environmental Hearing Board on Feb. 7. Even if the evaporator’s approval is retracted, Cirilano admitted, the problem of fracking waste isn’t going anywhere. “Where is it going to go? You know I don’t know the answer to that question but there’s an answer out there,” he said. “It's got to go somewhere, but it can't go here.”

‘It’s not rocket science’

Paul Ziemkiewicz is director of West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute and lead researcher on a five-year state-funded project to find best practices for fracking waste. He said the scientific principles of dealing with fracking waste are simple.

“It’s not rocket science: Just find the bad stuff and make sure it doesn’t get into the environment,” he said. “Keeping this material contained and out of the environment, out of groundwater and out of surface water is the No. 1 priority.”

In practice, that means storing fracking waste separately from conventional garbage, with any other waste that tests say could create toxic leachate. That can be expensive.

There are two sites for out-of-state commercial disposal of the type of radioactive waste produced by fracking: one in Texas and the other in a west Utah desert. In 2023, the Utah landfill charged $201 to bury 1 cubic foot of radioactive debris. Conventional Pennsylvania landfills charge up to $100 per ton.

The DEP stopped permitting fracking companies to discharge waste directly in the 2010s, said Stolz, but fracking pollution continued to show up in drinking water intakes. “We still saw places that it didn't clear up,” he said. He blamed that on leachate from landfills.

There is also no regulatory requirement to treat solid fracking waste separately. It qualifies under state law as “residual,” not “hazardous” waste – a “loophole,” according to state Sen. Katie Muth, D-Chester, whose legislation to change the designation is sitting before the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

Even disposal rules for mundane garbage are stricter, Stolz said. “It is illegal in this state to throw your batteries in your trash because of the metal content. You can't discard your smoke detector because it has a little piece of americium in it, which is radioactive. You can’t put your spent motor oil or the oil filter in the trash because it's toxic. But every one of those things has what’s in oil and gas waste.”

For liquid waste, however, Ziemkiewicz said the solution is much closer to home. Marcellus shale, he explained, is a uniquely dry formation to frack. “So for every cubic meter of injected water that goes underground probably 20% would ever come back,” he said. That can create issues finding enough water to frack with but “also opens the door for a really good disposal practice, which is using produced water as the stimulation water for subsequent wells.”

“The best thing to do is just to keep it and keep reinjecting it.”

‘A little glimmer of hope’

According to Katie Sheehan, even this best practice is far from perfect. She lives in Plum, down the street from a well site where Penneco Environmental Solutions reinjects fracking wastewater deep into the earth. Penneco’s first well was approved in Plum in 2021. A second was initially approved as an expansion of the same site in January 2022.

Pennecco’s Wallace said injecting wastewater is safer than discharging where it could potentially mix with surface water. “We're taking brine and putting it back into the ground where brine lives. So we're keeping it out of the river, we're keeping it out of the environment. We're giving people a place to get rid of it, and we do it safely.”

Shortly after the first well opened, Sheehan and her neighbors say they noticed spikes in home air quality sensors, as well as discoloration in local well water. According to ProtectPT’s environmental policy advocate Tom Pike, reinjection wells run the risk of polluted water “communicating” with other retired gas wells and drinking water through cracks in the ground created by the pressure of fracking.

“I'm not ignorant to the fact that this stuff does need to go somewhere,” Sheehan said, “but you already have it in my backyard, I don't need it as my neighbor as well.” 

While injection wells are less novel than evaporating fracking-contaminated leachate, they are not yet widespread in Pennsylvania, where Penneco’s second well would be the state’s 15th. Ohio has more than 200.

Wallace said health concerns came from a misunderstanding of injection wells. “They literally think we’re just pouring [wastewater] down a hole. They don’t understand it goes in a specific formation.”

“The science of injection is well understood,” he said, adding that the DEP investigated residents’ complaints and reported that water supplies had not been adversely affected by the disposal wells.

On Jan. 29, however, the Commonwealth Court reversed the second well’s approval and returned the plan to Plum’s Zoning Hearing Board with stipulations that any expansion must be demonstrably necessary and “not be detrimental to the public health.”

After four years fighting against the project, Sheehan said the decision was a lifeline. “I haven’t been very optimistic about any of this, so I guess that day there was a little glimmer of hope.”

While the zoning board reconsiders its initial approval, ProtectPT is pushing for Pennsylvania to increase regulatory “setbacks” between disposal wells and residential areas. Meanwhile, communities from Murrysville near Plum to Fayette County nearer the Westmoreland landfill are also pursuing local setback regulations.

Even as Cirilano said new management strategies for fracking waste appear to skirt regulatory protections, a network of advocates is forming among affected communities around Pittsburgh and further afield.

“Really disparate groups geographically are coming together [around] this one thing,” he said. “It couldn’t be done without the collaboration.”

Daniel Shailer is a climate and environmental reporter and can be reached at and on Twitter.

This story was fact-checked by Lucas Dufalla.

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