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Jumping through Loopholes: Gas Drilling Waste Moves through Sunbury to Ohio

posted on Monday, May 2nd, 2011
At Moran’s waste transfer facility, drill cuttings from the natural gas industry

SUNBURY, PA — A Watsontown-based company that recently expanded into the natural gas industry is operating a waste-transfer site without state permits. In Sunbury’s Caketown neighborhood, Moran Industries has been moving drill cuttings from trucks to train cars and shipping them to an undisclosed location in Ohio.

Trucks started arriving at the Caketown site in January, during what Moran called a test run. At that time, residents documented 22 trucks in one day. Moran announced the test run only after it had started, and neighbors to the facility reported that the waste transfer has continued steadily since that time. The company completed purchase of the property in early April for $525,000 after demolition of the former Knight-Celotex fiberboard manufacturing plant.

The trucks contain a mixed substance that gives off a strong chemical odor and appears to have soil, rock, mud and woodchips in it. When Sunbury resident Cora Campbell noticed the initial activity at the property, which is a block from her home, she immediately went to the city’s code office to find out details. Employees in the code office were unaware of what was happening at the time.

According to Cora, “Ever since that, I’ve been trying to fight it to find out whether there’s anything hazardous in it, and whether it’s gonna affect our health in any way, and what all is involved in them bringing it in to our neighborhoods.”


Residents’ concerns

Cora is part of a group of Sunbury residents calling themselves “the Caketown group.” They want to know whether the waste in the trucks is toxic and if Moran holds proper permits to operate at the site. The group has raised questions at city council meetings, contacted the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and visited PA State Representative Lynda Schlegel-Culver to present their concerns and demands. They have a right to be concerned. The old Celotex plant made products containing asbestos, and though a connection has never been officially documented, the group said that most families in the area have lost someone to cancer.

Dave Whipple, another member of the group, said, “when Celotex was here, we put up with that horrible smell for 40 years. Everybody in this neighborhood that has died, has died of cancer”.

About the new transfer site, Dave added, “We live here. We have to breathe it. Looking at it doesn’t bother me, but breathing in it, because we don’t know what it is.”

According to Jeff Stroehmann, vice-president of Moran Industries, the site is used to transfer drill cuttings, which are the rock material brought up from deep in the earth when drilling gas wells. Drill cuttings are produced before hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) takes place, but there is still a level of caution because radioactive material can be found in the rock where they drill[1].. According to law, drill cuttings should be dry pieces of rock.


Shipments to Ohio

Transfer of this sort of material is part of an expanding web of gas drilling support services that have sprung up across the state, as companies seek second-hand profits from the boom industry. On a WKOK radio show in March[2], Stroehmann described Moran’s role in the process. “What’s happening is that drill cuttings, as the industry calls them, are coming from the well pad,” he said, “They’re transferred on the Celotex site from a roll-off container [in a truck bed] onto a rail car, and that rail car is going to a landfill in Ohio for disposal.”

But why Ohio? Stroehmann explained that in Ohio, regulations on residual waste allow for it to be dumped as cover on top of landfills. In Pennsylvania, this type of waste must be disposed of inside a landfill, or buried on the drill site. Stroehmann said, “The gas companies wanna clean the sites up when they leave,” so they hire companies like Moran to transport the waste away. He noted that the industry is lobbying to have[a] the Pennsylvania’s regulations changed to be more like those in Ohio.


Regulation loopholes

While PA’s residual waste regulations govern how gas companies must dispose of waste they create, the key question in the DEP’s investigation of the Sunbury site is if Moran needs permits to run a waste transfer facility. The federal Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, passed in 2005, opened a loophole that let railroads operate waste transfer facilities without state or local permits. The federal Clean Railroads Act of 2008 narrowed that loophole, but left it open for waste from oil, gas and mining.

Mark Szybist, a lawyer with the environmental advocacy organization PennFuture, said, “This is another loophole that the oil and gas industry has managed to carve out for itself. The result in this case is a drill cuttings transfer facility that has no state-approved radiation action protection plan, no nuisance control plan, and no plan for alternative waste handling if equipment breaks down. Public health and safety depend on plans like these and DEP oversight, generally. It makes no sense for oil and gas waste transfer stations to be allowed to operate without them.”

These laws mean that for Moran to keep operating the site as-is, they must be operating “as, or on behalf of, a railroad carrier.” While the DEP’s legal team determines if that is the case, Moran continues to unload trucks full of waste onto Ohio-bound rail cars. Szybist explained, “One approach the DEP could take is to shut the facility down pending a final determination on whether it is owned or operated by or on behalf of a rail carrier. The Department has chosen not to do this. They appear to be presuming that no permit is needed.”

If Moran were required to have a state permit, a few things at the site would be different. According to state code, Moran would not be able operate within 300 feet of a home without written consent from the owner. The company would have to install radiation monitors, as well as building a fence around the site and putting up a sign that says who is operating and the hours. It would also not be allowed to operate in a floodplain.

Unanswered questions

A vacuum of information exists for Sunbury residents, not just about what’s going on, but who concerned residents can go to about it. Who has the oversight? Who can make changes?

The local government is excited about the use of the old industrial site and the potential jobs that could come with its development. The river town of almost 10,000 people[3] has always been reliant on the factories in town. It is in Northumberland County, where the unemployment rate is 9.7% as of February 2011[4]. Bringing good jobs into the town would be a great benefit to the local economy.

Yet despite their support for the project, city officials seem to have few specific details. No clear promises have been made about what types of jobs Moran will create or even how many. Neither the mayor nor city council have been able to tell residents which company supplies the waste or where it is being shipped to in Ohio. The mayor also did not respond to phone calls from Pennsylvania from Below.

At city council meetings, Moran Vice-President Jeff Stroehmann promised a transparent relationship between Moran and Sunbury residents, but he has not answered their questions about who produces the waste or where in Ohio it is going. He attributed complaints about Moran’s work to the influence of environmentalists. Stroehmann said Moran has a good relationship with the DEP and has worked with them all the way, yet the DEP has already spent months trying to figure out whether Moran owns or operates the site on behalf of the railroad.

A DEP representative initially responded to questions from one member of the Caketown group, but communication has stopped since the beginning of the legal team’s examination of permit requirements. The community relations officer of the DEP also did not answer questions from Pennsylvania from Below.

With this unresponsiveness from official sources, residents are left to do their own research about the waste in their neighborhood. Cora Campbell said, “What we’re finding out is what we’re doing on our own.“

The residents are persistent and clear with their demands.  Carole Mazzeo, another member of the Caketown group, described what they told Rep. Schegel-Culver in their March meeting: “[We said] we wanted an independent certified state lab to come in to test the stuff. We wanted the DEP permits in place. We wanted it done legally and properly.”

According to Dave Whipple, “They think we’re gonna go away and we’re not. If it’s not right, it’s not right.”


[1] “Radioactivity in the Marcellus Shale results from the high content of naturally occuring radioactive uranium and thorium, their decay products include Radium-226, and radioactive potassium elements. The evidence of high radionuclide content is present in geochemical studies and in gamma-ray logs from wells drilled into the Marcellus formation.”


[3]9,810 residents, as of 2009:

[4]According to Google Data:

This article was supported by community fundraising through Spot.Us