The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office is investigating the disposal of contaminated water from a landfill that accepts fracking waste to a sewage treatment plant in Fayette County.
The investigation comes a week after a judge barred the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill in Rostraver Township from sending its wastewater to the nearby Belle Vernon Municipal Authority waste treatment plant for 90 days.
The issue involves the landfill’s leachate — water that percolates through the landfill and gets collected for disposal. The landfill is permitted to send 50,000 gallons of the leachate per day to the treatment plant. But, according to a complaint filed by district attorneys in Washington and Fayette counties, the landfill had been sending 100,000 to 300,000 gallons of leachate per day.
Beginning last spring, the treatment plant started seeing levels of pollution in its discharge to the Monongahela River go up and exceed state and federal limits. The treatment plant determined the contamination was coming from the landfill, which accepts fracking waste like drill cuttings.
“That water was contaminated with diesel fuels, it’s alleged, carcinogens and other pollutants,” said Rich Bower, Fayette County District Attorney. Bower and Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone petitioned Fayette County Court of Common Pleas Judge Steve P. Leskinen for a 90-day injunction against the landfill. The judge agreed and issued the injunction on May 17.
“We saw a serious problem with all of this because of the fact that the Monongahela River is a great source for drinking water around for all downstream,” Bower said.
According to court documents filed with the case, the municipal authority’s supervisor, Guy Kruppa, notified the Department of Environmental Protection about the problems with the landfill’s leachate. The DEP responded by giving the landfill a permit to operate a “pretreatment” system to deal with contaminants in its waste.
In an affidavit, Kruppa said the pretreatment system “was completely unsuccessful” and that his plant’s discharge continued to violate its state and federal permits.
When the municipal authority petitioned the agency for help, a DEP engineer, Donald Leone, said in an email to a treatment plant engineer that the DEP was considering an arrangement where the sewage plant would continue to accept the waste.
Under the arrangement, the landfill would “pay any penalties for effluent violations at the Belle Vernon plant” while the landfill came up with a better way to clean up its waste. “In turn Belle Vernon would need to let the landfill stay connected to their system.”
This arrangement stuck out to the two local prosecutors.
“It was troubling that the DEP had indicated (to the authority) to keep on discharging contaminated water and that the municipal authority should work out a deal for the landfill to pay the fines,” Bower said.
A spokesman for the DEP didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The landfill accepted 4,600 tons drilling waste in March, the latest month for which data are available, according to the DEP. This waste is mostly drill cuttings, which can contain naturally occurring radioactive materials, salts, and metals.
The landfill has agreed not to send its wastewater to the treatment plant, says Ro Rozier, a spokeswoman for Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill. “We have begun using approved alternatives for disposal of the wastewater,” Rozier said, in an email. “Now, we will continue making large investments in onsite technology to improve leachate quality that will exceed government standards.”
Bower and Vittone have referred the case to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office for further investigation.
“[We’re] asking them to determine whether or not there is any criminal activity that they’re going to be able to investigate and to prosecute,” Bower says.
Bower said it was a simple matter of manpower: the Attorney General has the staff and expertise to investigate environmental criminal cases that local district attorneys do not.
The Attorney General’s office confirmed it has taken over the case, but a spokesman declined further comment.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WESA, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.