Tina Curry-Bashioum used to live next door to the MAX Environmental Yukon Facility, a hazardous waste disposal site that accepts toxic shale gas waste in rural Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. She lived there for 16 years before moving to a neighboring town about two years ago. “Not living there now,” Tina said, “I can physically feel a difference in my whole body. Looking back, I didn’t realize how sluggish I was. When I go back now, I can feel how heavy the air is there.”
Tina gives a tour of the Yukon Facility that begins at the southeast corner of the facility, where a resident’s backyard is separated from Landfill 6 by a single row of trees. Waste disposal is permitted on 137 acres of the 160-acre facility. “I gave this tour a few years ago,” Tina said. “The scientist got a nosebleed when we got out here.”
The acrid, heavy air feels palpably dusty, the only indication that something is amiss with the innocuous landscape. Landfill 6 is a towering mountain of tan dirt and grass surrounded by bright green filter socks that seem much too puny to manage storm runoff.
The bland appearance of the Yukon Facility conceals the harm inflicted on the community, even from those who live there. “It just breaks my heart that people just don’t know,” Tina said. “It’s not that they don’t care. They don’t know. This has been in the community for so many years. You wouldn’t believe how many people say, ‘Oh, I’m not worried about MAX. The entrance is way over there.’ They don’t realize it’s literally in their backyard.”
What happens at the MAX Environmental Yukon Facility?
The MAX Environmental Yukon Facility is the only Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Subtitle C permitted waste treatment facility in Pennsylvania. RCRA, specifically Subtitle C and D, is the primary Federal statute regulating the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of solid and hazardous waste. Waste accepted at the Yukon Facility includes hazardous soils, slags and brick, waste acids, air pollution control dusts and fly ash, lead abatement/sandblast residues, wastewater treatment sludges, electric arc furnace dust, waste acid/pickle liquor, corrosives, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, selenium, silver, impacted soils from cleanup, brownfield projects and drilling sites, air pollution control wastes, slag and refractory, wastewater treatment sludges, dewatered dredging sludges, and oil and gas drilling wastes.
In January 2021, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a Final Decision and Response to Comments document requiring MAX Environmental to take several corrective actions at the Yukon Facility. The facility background enumerated by the EPA summarizes a multi-generational impact to the surrounding community.
Making the Connection to MAX
Tina had heard stories about the hazardous waste processed and stored at the Yukon Facility during the years she lived and worked on Millbell Road. She knew that her friends and family were experiencing fatal cancers. “We always knew something was back there,” Tina said. “On Millbell Road, I counted 11 houses and there were 17 cases of cancer on that street alone.”
One day, Tina was at work at the mechanic shop where she worked on cars with her then husband. A neighbor from across the street came into the shop and announced that there was a loose pig in the neighborhood. “He tells me that somebody dropped a pig off back the road,” Tina said. “So it ends up there are about six of us back there trying to catch this pig.”
As the neighbors struggled to contain the wayward farm animal, the pig darted in and out of a chain link fence meant to protect the community from MAX Environmental. “My ex told me about MAX before. I always had it in my head,” Tina said. “I started thinking to myself, if this pig can get in and out of this fence that easily, my god, little kids could be back there playing and no one would be the wiser.”
The pig was captured eventually and gifted to a farmer who happened to be at the shop getting the emissions test done on his vehicle. “That pig went on to live four or five more years at the farm,” Tina said. “We were happy about that.”
The pig was safe, but Tina kept thinking about the danger to her neighbors from the lack of care MAX Environmental was showing by letting the fence fall into a state of disrepair. She called Robert Shawver, President of MAX Environmental Technologies, Inc., to make him aware of the holes in the fence. Mr. Shawver was dismissive of Tina’s concerns. “I started thinking more and more about it,” Tina said. “If this place gets inspections done, why was this not inspected? If it’s dealing with all these toxic chemicals with all these holes back here, that’s a violation, I would think.”
Tina got online and educated herself about the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP). After waiting two weeks for MAX Environmental to address her concerns and feeling dismissed by the company, she filed an environmental complaint. PADEP inspected the site and issued a violation.
After the lost pig drew Tina’s attention to MAX Environmental, she became more attuned to the activities at the site. “You see a lot when you live right next to it like that,” she said. “But the thing with DEP, whenever I file complaints with them, I don’t ever know what the result is. I can go on eFACTS and see if they got a violation, but that’s it.” Tina also accessed Pennsylvania’s Environment Facility Application Compliance Tracking System (eFACTS) to track complaints that were never investigated, fueling a growing frustration that the department was not protecting the community.
Complaints, Violations, and a Complete Disregard for Human Life
Near the end of Tina’s time living on Millbell Road, she started waking up during the night because of a burning smell. “The first night it happened, I didn’t know what it was,” Tina said. “I thought the house was on fire.”
The burning smell continued to interrupt Tina’s sleep, night after night, for six months. Each night she’d file a complaint with PADEP and check her PurpleAir monitors. The monitors indicated something out of the ordinary was happening. In the morning, Tina would call the PADEP inspector. Still, the overnight burning continued.
After six months, PADEP conducted a regular inspection not related to Tina’s complaints. Tina read on eFACTS that the inspector happened upon smoldering at Landfill 6 at 8 a.m. The PADEP inspector reportedly asked a heavy equipment operator at the site to explain the smoke. The equipment operator replied that the smoldering had been going on since his arrival at 6 a.m. Tina confirmed that every one of her complaints for the prior six months had been filed between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. PADEP issued a violation for open burning after stumbling on it during a regular inspection, the same issue Tina had reported daily for six months to no avail.
Even after moving to a neighboring town, Tina remains committed to protecting Yukon residents after realizing, through these experiences, that no one else is looking out for them. “It’s such bad stuff they’re dealing with,” she said. “They know what they’re dealing with, and it’s just blatant disregard for human life. I didn’t give them permission to put toxins into my body.”
At the center of Tina’s activism is a need for data about the impact the MAX Yukon Facility has on the surrounding area’s air and water. In 2017, she began working with Mountain Watershed Association (MWA) to monitor effluent leaving the Yukon Facility. Tina spearheaded an effort to set up air monitors to capture emissions data that might help to fill the void left by inadequate PADEP monitoring. “I have the Environmental Health Project do my air reports,” Tina said. “I need that. I’m not a scientist!”
Health Impacts of Shale Gas Industry Waste
MAX Environmental disclosed in a public meeting that, historically, 75% of the hazardous waste accepted at the Yukon Facility comes from the oil and gas industry. The shale gas industry produces a tremendous amount of toxic waste in liquid, sludge, and solid forms. The EPA estimates that, on average, 160,000 gallons of waste is produced each day in just the first five days after a fracturing job. While this amount can decrease over time, it is still estimated that a well can produce 1,100 gallons of liquid waste every day for anywhere between 10-30 years. This waste is a public health concern because of its toxicity and radioactivity.
Leachate is formed in landfills as rainwater filters through the waste, and, in doing this, the liquid draws out and concentrates a variety of chemicals or other substances present in the waste. At the MAX Environmental Yukon Facility, this is of particular concern because accepted oil and gas solid waste is known to contain radioactive materials that, in turn, can produce leachate that is also radioactive. Previous data has shown that leachate at landfills accepting this waste had frequent concentrations of radium-226 and radium-228 present that exceeded the maximum contaminant level.
The presence of radium-226 and radium-228 is of great concern for individuals’ health. The decay chain of radium involves the release of radiation. Exposure to radiation has been linked to causing various types of cancers, such as lymphomas, leukemia, and bone cancer. EHP’s factsheet, Risks from Liquid, Sludge and Solid Waste from Shale Gas Development, further explains the exposure pathways and health impacts of shale gas industry waste.
MAX Environmental Yukon Facility Expansion
“In March 2021, MAX submitted an application to the PADEP for a new Hazardous Waste Landfill (Landfill 7) proposing to add over 1 million tons of additional disposal capacity!” announced the Max Environmental webpage for the Yukon Facility. The planned 17-acre expansion would be the first since 1988 when Landfill 6 opened. Tina worked to inform her neighbors about the risks of expanding the poorly regulated facility that had so long plagued the Yukon community.
“Some of the first meetings we had, not a lot of people attended,” Tina said. “By this last meeting in December, the room was packed. That felt really good.” Yukon residents participated in several meetings organized by MWA and a public hearing hosted by PADEP to voice concerns about Landfill 7. Residents expressed a variety of concerns about Landfill 7’s location in an area prone to flooding, its proximity to homes and Sewickley Creek, potential interaction with legacy mining operations, inadequate regulatory oversight, and the lifetime of health problems attributed to the air and water emissions from the facility.
A Victory for Yukon Residents
Tina knew that community involvement was going to make a difference. “It’s a big thing,” she said. “Having one person stand up there is good, but having 50 people, they can’t ignore that.” Still, she was surprised one Friday in February 2023. Almost two years after submitting a permit application to expand the Yukon Facility, MAX Environmental withdrew the application. “People are excited,” Tina said. “Everybody has been calling and texting each other about it.”
The harm caused by MAX Environmental continues even without the Landfill 7 expansion. Tina is focused on pushing MAX to fulfill their Landfill 6 permit requirement to provide an emergency response plan to nearby residents. Among her requests to the corporate giant that looms so large over Yukon: a distinct siren for a chemical event at the plant and emergency supplies stored in case of emergency evacuation. “This stuff has to go somewhere,” Tina says of the hazardous waste stored in her community. “People are worried about fracking. This is where fracking comes to die. And if it has to come to Yukon, it needs to be stored safely and properly regulated.”
Tina expects the plans for Landfill 7 are only delayed, not canceled. The space exists for MAX to store and treat more waste in Yukon, so the community remains vigilant for a new permit application submission to PADEP. With no immediate threat of expansion, residents continue monitoring their own air and water and wait for PADEP to finally regulate the facility in a way that sufficiently protects the community.
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