Marcellus Shale boom is a boon to Western Pennsylvania landfill company
Bill Spencer went to his employees in 2011 and told them life at his landfill company had to change.
Max Environmental Technologies Inc. had stayed in business for 50 years by serving Western Pennsylvania's biggest industries. First, it was steel; and now, the gas industry. To get its business would mean the end of standard 7-5 shifts. Some workers had taken pay cuts a year before — now they would have to work long hours and late hours. Max had to be ready and flexible around the clock.
Drillers “are incredibly demanding. They want it yesterday,” Spencer said. “It was imperative that we made a change, and change direction. Also diversify the company. We tried a million different ideas, and we were fortunate that the Marcellus emerged all around us, and it was a perfect fit.”
Gas companies are drilling about 100 wells a month into the state's shale formations, and the sand they've used and cuttings that come up from deep underground have to go to landfills or get permanently encased in a protective liner. That totaled 1.3 million tons of solid waste last year, according to state data.
It occurred at a time when the landfill business was hurting because of the economic downturn, said David Buzzell, legal counsel to the Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association. Shale drilling accounts for 1 million of the 20 million tons of waste its members get a year, Buzzell said.
The shale business is a boon for Max, said Carl Spadaro, environmental general manager. The Upper St. Clair-based company operates two landfills — Yukon in South Huntingdon in Westmoreland County and Bulger in Smith in Washington County. About 50 percent of its business — about $10 million to $12 million in gross annual revenue — is from shale drillers, Spadaro said.
The first drilling waste arrived at Yukon in 2011, and it took about 13,400 tons in its first two years. This year, it took 37,000 tons in the first six months, said Spadaro, a former project manager for the Department of Environmental Protection. That's added about $1 million to annual gross revenues.
The growth has resulted in a staff expansion. The company added seven positions this year, bringing its staff up to 40. Officials expect to add seven more this year between its two landfills, Spadaro said.
While many of its competitors are large conglomerates with a lot of resources, Max sells itself as a company with local expertise and little overhead. It sells and leases mats, pumps and tanks, and sends its employees to drill sites to secure them from spills, clean trucks and get waste ready to be hauled away.
So far, its business has been with some of the mid-majors and smaller companies working Western Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale, including Consol Energy Inc. and its joint-venture partner Noble Energy Inc., Energy Corporation of America and Rice Energy LP, Spadaro said. Max is courting other companies, he added.
Those companies either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
Spencer's father started the company with the Bulger landfill in 1957. It was called Mill Service Inc. and primarily took acid — “pickle liquor” — that mills had used to clean steel. When that industry collapsed, Max shifted its focus in the 1990s to solid waste, especially contaminated soil from industrial sites and redevelopment sites, Spadaro said.
The company has faced community opposition. A group called Concerned Residents of the Yough in the 1980s and early '90s called Yukon an environmental hazard, claims the company always denied. It did, however, close one of its original impoundments there in 1985 as part of a consent decree with the DEP. The state had found chlorides, nitrates and salts leaching from the acid pit.
South Huntingdon officials in the 2000s fought Max's attempt to start taking mercury, cyanide or sulfide, and this year unsuccessfully tried to block the company's request to take waste that has some naturally occurring radioactive material. Max had previously accepted limits on radioactive waste at Yukon even lower than the norm for landfills in Pennsylvania, but that had put the company at a disadvantage with competitors, its officials said.
“That (request) was kind of a shocker,” said Helen Ianni, 61, who lives alongside the Yukon site's boundary.
Ianni doesn't trust Max officials because of what Yukon was like in the 1970s, she said. Liquid waste seeped through the ground nearby, and red clouds that smelled like rotten eggs wafted over from the dump. There has been gradual improvement though, she said. The company often sends trucks to clean up little leaks its trucks leave on the road, and there's no smell or sign of ground pollution, she said.
“You can breathe the air around here now,” Ianni said. “You couldn't then.”
The company has worked hard to address concerns from neighbors and township officials, Spadaro said. It's in compliance with all state rules, Spadaro said. It received permission from the state to start taking the level of radioactive waste permitted for standard landfills only after it agreed to add a truck scale and start tracking all of its radioactive waste.
“It has come very far,” added Spadaro, who used to oversee the company when he worked at DEP. “It's one thing to say you're going to invest in equipment and transform your business, but to really do it, to modernize and become more efficient, it's a whole other thing. Max has shown it's going to follow through on the commitment it's made.”
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.