Environment

Radioactive waste illegally dumped in an Estill County landfill will likely stay in the ground after state regulators approved a corrective action plan last week.

The plan laid out two options: enclose the low-level radioactive material in the landfill, or excavate it and dump it somewhere else.

Environmental advocates say the only safe long-term plan is to remove the waste, but state regulators agreed with landfill operators.

Keeping the radioactive waste in the ground provides the greatest short-term and long-term protectiveness to human health and the environment, said John Mura, a spokesman for the Energy and Environment Cabinet.

“The Cabinet carefully considered all of the responses to the [Corrective Action Plan] and truly believes that this alternative is the best way forward,” Mura said.

Leaving The Waste In Place

The fallout comes three years after radioactive waste from natural gas drilling operations in West Virginia ended up in the Blue Ridge Landfill near Irvine, Kentucky.

The landfill operator, Advanced Disposal Services, said it didn’t knowingly accept the illegal material. And now, it’s not clear where the radioactive waste is buried in the landfill, according to Energy and Environment Cabinet comments on the corrective action plan.

The Cabinet said it would be “difficult if not impossible” to find the radioactive waste because it’s mixed and spread throughout the seven-acre site.

And the contractor who performed the risk assessment didn’t test the landfill core, citing health risks to workers and the public, records show. State regulators concluded the results would “likely not improve the characterization of the waste,” according to state records.

Instead, the contractor collected samples from a similarly processed oil and gas waste and made conservative estimates.

That worst case scenario — which assumed the landfill has no cap and no liner — estimates the radioactive waste could contaminate groundwater next to the landfill for the next 2,700 years. That’s based on Environmental Protection Agency risk ranges.

In practice, the landfill does have a liner. But the current liner has an estimated service half-life of less than 450 years, far less than that of the radioactive isotopes likely found in the waste.

‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s decision to leave the waste in place is contrary to local public opinion, according to Craig Williams.

He’s the program director at the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, and said the majority of residents who submitted public comments preferred the material be removed and placed in a landfill designed for radioactive waste.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

“The long-term health and environmental impact of that material is unknown and the only way to be sure is to have that material removed,” Williams said.

But state regulators say digging up the material poses its own health risks. The plan estimates it would take 93 days and 1,800 truckloads to remove the waste. During that time, workers, residents and a nearby school could be exposed to blowing dust, foul odors and radiation.

State regulators also included revisions to the plan that will increase protections for enclosing the waste in place. Those include groundwater monitoring that will last at least until 2066 and land-use restrictions, Mura said.

The important thing is that if radioactivity is found, the monitoring will continue, Mura said.

As for what will happen once the liner wears out, “I can’t predict what will happen,” he said.

In the meantime, Denny and Vivian Smith are trying to sell their farm beside the landfill, but Vivian said they haven’t got a single bid. She said the property has lost its value because of the threat from the landfill.

“I’m torn two ways, I’d like for [the radioactive waste] to be gone, but at the same time I worry about our health and what would we do while they were removing it,” Vivian said. “So it’s like ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’”

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.