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.
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.
(Photo by Michelle Kanu, QUEST Ohio)
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.
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.”
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,” 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.”
(Photo by Michelle Kanu, QUEST Ohio)
These piles of dirt are undergoing the bioremediation treatment process.
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.”
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.