Those who knowingly violated Kentucky law by dumping low-level radioactive waste at the Blue Ridge Landfill in Estill County were hit with the biggest fines, Jennifer Wolsing, an attorney for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, told a public forum Monday night in Irvine.
Even those who unknowingly accepted or transported the waste will be penalized, Wolsing said. But state officials’ actions were not enough for some Estill County residents who angrily confronted them at a form Monday night.
Earlier in the day, CHFS announced that several entities and individuals will face fines that collectively total more than $8.5 million.
Cory Hoskins and Advanced TENORM Services, both of West Liberty, were each fined $2.65 million. Both were called willful violators.
Hoskins is the broker who facilitated the transport of sludge from fracking wells in West Virginia to Estill County, Wolsing said.
He called Kentucky regulators to inquire whether waste known as technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials (TENORM) could be accepted by Kentucky landfills, Wolsing said. Hoskins was told that such waste would not be accepted at any of the state’s 26 public landfills, the attorney said.
Still, Hoskins arranged for a trucking company to pick up waste from Fairmont Brine Processing in West Virginia for delivery to the Estill County landfill, Wolsing said.
However, records filed when the waste was picked up, showed that it was headed to Kentucky.
A West Virginia official, who also had inquired about what was permitted at Kentucky landfills, eventually saw the transport records and alerted his Kentucky counterparts, Wolsing related.
The illegal dumping probably began in July 2015 and continued until that November. But Kentucky officials weren’t alerted until Jan. 19, 2016, said Matt McKinley, radiation health manager for the state health department.
Kentucky officials began investigating, and on Feb. 1 confirmed that 47 containers, about 1,100 tons of illegal waste, was delivered to the landfill.
On Feb. 4, state officials met with a broker who admitted to the violation, but the regulators believed they weren’t getting the entire story, said Tony Hatton, deputy commissioner of the Department for Environmental Protection.
Later, investigators found that from July 2015 to February 2016 another 45 loads, more than 760 tons, of illegal waste were brought to Kentucky, mostly from Ohio.
Most of the waste found its way to Estill County, but some went to Greenup County, Hatton said.
The broker certified to the Estill County landfill that the waste was neither hazardous nor radioactive.
A copy of the bogus certificate was projected on a screen for the audience.
To put the amounts in perspective, the Blue Ridge landfill typically accepts about 375 tons of waste daily. But waste from out of state requires a special permit, he explained.
On Feb. 10, CHFS officials conducted a walk-over of the landfill and immediate surrounding area looking for threats to health. However, radiation levels were “fairly normal,” McKinley said.
On Feb. 27, the investigators took soil, air and water samples at the nearby campus of Estill County High School.
They feared that wind could have carried airborne radioactive materials from the landfill toward the school, McKinley said. However, the sludge when dumped tends to be moist which limits the formation of dust particles, he explained.
The search found no evidence of radioactive impact at the school, McKinley said.
To explain the radioactive material’s origin, McKinley showed a photo of a shale outcropping he said is common in Estill County and other mountainous areas of Kentucky and West Virginia.
The rock naturally emits low-level radiation, which is why it is classified as normally occurring radioactive material (NORM).
There is no escaping this “background radiation,” McKinley added. But when such material is significantly modified or concentrated by human actions, as happens in the mineral extraction process known as fracking, it is classified as TENORM.
Putting the matter of danger in to perspective, McKinley said he made a flight to South Korea this year that exposed him to more radiation than a landfill employee would have received from a “worst case” exposure.
Leachate from the landfill, as well as ground water and water from nearby ponds, have all shown no signs of dangerous radiation, the officials said.
They put the risk of ill effects of the radiation to someone at the school at six in 10 million.
However, the absence of observable effect does not mean absence of risk, because any radiation dose carries risk, Hatton cautioned.
Despite the detailed explanations and assurances of safety, several Estill County residents expressed dissatisfaction, at best, with how the state had reacted to the potential danger, the level of fines they are seeking and potential remediation options.
While removal of the waste is the state’s preferred option, containment and mitigation remains a possibility.
Extracting the waste could create more risk than applying mitigation measures on site, Hatton said.
More than one speaker, including David Bose of Estill County, demanded that all illegal waste be removed and the landfill restored to its prior condition.
He also questioned the thoroughness of the state’s investigation. “You don’t know what’s deep inside” the landfill, he said.
Even a $2.65 million fine was called “chump change,” easily affordable for a large corporation, one speaker declared.
However, Wolsing said most of the violators were small operators who could be driven out of business by the fines. The possibility of reduced settlements paid by violators was better than forcing them out of business and receiving no money, she added.
In one case, the violator was “two guys with a truck and a pressure washer,” Wolsing said.
Intentional violation of Kentucky waste laws can be a Class D felony, that can draw a prison term of one to five years, Walsing said. But the attorney general office found insufficient evidence for prosecution.
When asked why, CFHS lawyers directed that question to the attorney general. Once his decision was made, the case passed to them for civil litigation, said Justin Clark, the cabinet’s general counsel.
While it was not a knowledgeable violator, the landfill’s owner, Advanced Disposal, will be fined $15,000 and will be forced to implement a prevention plan, including purchase of $60,000 in equipment for routine radiation monitoring, Wolsing said.
Earlier this year, the General Assembly commissioned a task force to propose measures to prevent future radioactive dumping. Its report is due Dec. 1.
However, other landfills will not be inspected for radiation. After low-level radioactive material is buried under several layers of other waste, each covered by a daily layer of soil, the radiation would be virtually undetectable, McKinley said after the meeting.
Violators will be required to fund remediation measures, and money from fines will go toward enforcement of waste and radiation laws as well as for education, officials said.
As the meeting started, Estill County Judge/Executive Wallace Taylor said his fiscal court was pursuing its own civil actions against the violators.
He also criticized the state officials for not informing him of the investigation’s progress. He learned about the proposed fines only two hours before the forum when a Louisville reporter called to ask for his reaction to the state’s announcement, Taylor said.
If necessary, the county would “fight the state of Kentucky” in addition to the violators, the judge/executive said.
However, Tom Hart. who opened the meeting, said his group, Concerned Citizens of Estill County, was satisfied by with how the state agencies had kept them informed.
Reach Bill Robinson at 624-6608.
Some information has been changed or corrected since this story was originally published.