The Oil and Gas Industry Produces Radioactive Waste. Lots of It

·12 min read
Pump jack in Colorado - Credit: David Zalubowski/AP
Pump jack in Colorado - Credit: David Zalubowski/AP

Massive amounts of radioactive waste brought to the surface by oil and gas wells have overwhelmed the industry and the state and federal agencies that regulate it, according to a report released today by the prominent environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council. The waste poses “significant health threats,” including the increased risk of cancer to oil and gas workers and their families and also nearby communities.

“We know that the waste has radioactive elements, we know that it can have very high and dangerous levels, we know that some of the waste gets into the environment, and we know that people who live or work near various oil and gas sites are exposed to the waste. What we don’t know are the full extent of the health impacts,” says Amy Mall, an analyst with NRDC who has been researching oilfield waste for 15 years and is a co-author on the report.

More from Rolling Stone

The report conveys that radioactive oilfield waste is piling up at landfills across America — and in at least some documented cases leaching radioactivity through treatment plants and into waterways. It is also being spread on farm fields in states like Oklahoma and Texas and on roads across the Midwest and Northeast under the belief that it melts ice and suppresses dust.

Many of the issues mentioned in the NRDC report were reported by Rolling Stone in a 20-month investigation published in January 2020 that found a sweeping arc of contamination. “There is little public awareness of this enormous waste stream, the disposal of which could present dangers at every step,” the story stated, “from being transported along America’s highways in unmarked trucks; handled by workers who are often misinformed and under-protected; leaked into waterways; and stored in dumps that are not equipped to contain the toxicity. Brine has even been used in commercial products sold at hardwares stores and is spread on local roads as a de-icer.”

“Radioactive elements are naturally present in many soil and rock formations, as well as the water that flows through them,” the NRDC report explains. Oil and gas production brings those elements to the surface. Wells generate a highly salty toxic liquid called brine at the rate of about a trillion gallons a year in the U.S. It contains heavy metals and can contain significant amounts of the carcinogenic radioactive element radium. The U.S. EPA’s webpage on oilfield waste indicates that radium and lead-210, a radioactive isotope of lead, can also accumulate and concentrate in a sludge at the bottom of storage containers and in the hardened mineral deposits that form on the inside of oilfield piping. Crushed dirt and rock called drilled cuttings, which are produced through fracking, can contain elevated levels of uranium and thorium.

“My first major concern is that workers don’t know they are working with radioactive materials, and there is no protection to ensure that they don’t face dangerous exposures to radiation,” says Bemnet Alemayehu, the report’s other co-author and an NRDC staff scientist with a Ph.D. in radiation health physics. “Those are alpha emitters, and from an internal dose perspective [inhalation or ingestion], this is one area where I am very concerned,” he continued. “If workers’ clothes or skin get dusted or splashed in waste, they may take contamination home to their families.”

The NRDC report, entitled “A Hot Fracking Mess: How Weak Regulation of Oil and Gas Production Leads to Radioactive Waste in Our Water, Air, and Communities,” shows that despite the industry and regulators knowing about the radioactivity issue, the risks have been patently ignored. A 1982 American Petroleum Institute paper obtained by Rolling Stone laid out hazards but warned the industry that regulation “could impose a severe burden.” A 1987 EPA report to Congress detailed numerous harms, but according to one EPA employee cited in the NRDC report, was ignored for “solely political reasons.” To this day there remains no single federal rule governing the radioactivity brought to the surface in oil and gas development, says the NRDC, and state regulators have failed to pick up the pieces and fill in the gaps.

“Our bedrock federal environmental, health, and safety laws have gaping loopholes and exemptions that allow radioactive oil and gas materials to go virtually unregulated,” the NRDC report states. While some states have established rules to address gaps in federal regulations, “no state has adequately protected health and the environment from this dangerous material.”

The report details regulatory gaps in transportation and trucking, worker safety, and in some of the nation’s benchmark environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. One of the most notorious exemptions involves oilfield radioactivity not being covered by the Atomic Energy Act, which was passed in 1946 and is the nation’s chief law for regulating radioactive materials. The mother of all exemptions is the 1980 Bentsen and Bevill Amendments to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which labels oilfield waste as non-hazardous, despite the EPA having found that the wastes contain multiple hazards, including uranium at “levels that exceed 100 times EPA’s health-based standards.”

While some states, like North Dakota or Pennsylvania, have instituted some regulatory measures, it is typically after something particularly egregious occurs, says Mall. For example, the report documents how in North Dakota in the mid-2010s, radioactive oilfield waste was dumped in trash bags at an abandoned gas station. In the early days of Pennsylvania’s fracking boom, shale waste was being disposed of at waste treatment plants that leaked radioactivity into rivers that could be sources of drinking water or used for recreation. But even then, Mall says, the rules are so narrow as to be ineffective. North Dakota mandated new rules for certain waste streams, but waste continues to be illegally dumped, the report found — the problem was just exported to other states. Between 2016 and 2019, some 2 million pounds of radioactive fracking waste from North Dakota ended up at a landfill in Oregon near the Columbia River.

“With both the federal government and state governments declining to adequately regulate the radioactive material in oil and gas waste,” states the NRDC report, “industry is often free to release this waste into surrounding communities, endangering human health and the environment with impunity.”

“I would add that all these gaps and loopholes in the law that allow the industry to operate in a way that is unsafe to workers and communities are basically subsidies or gifts to the industry that allow oil and gas production to appear cheaper than it actually is, so they skew the economics,” says Mall. “There is human harm from these exemptions and there is an economic effect as well.”

The American Petroleum Institute, the nation’s main oil and gas lobby, when notified by Rolling Stone about the NRDC report, and reminded that their own documents express concern about radioactive contamination to workers and the public, conveyed that they believe the issue is under control.

“Health and safety is our industry’s top priority, and we take stringent and significant measures to protect our workers, the environment and the communities where we live and operate,” says spokesperson Jess Szymanski. “Natural gas and oil companies meet or exceed strict federal and state regulations, as well as undergo routine inspections to ensure that all materials are managed, stored, transported, and disposed of safely and responsibly.”

But there is ample evidence this is not the case. The Rolling Stone story published in 2020, which relied on historical industry and government documents, dozens of academic, industry and government experts, and industry workers, found many examples of the waste being stored or transported in ways that put people at risk of exposure. “If we caught some ISIS terrorist cells dumping this into our waterways, they’d be tried for terrorism and the use of a WMD on U.S. citizens,” said Silverio Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist in Ohio. “However the frac industry is given a pass on all this.” One Ohio truck driver who learned the waste he was hauling was radioactive was unable to get help or clarification from his employer or the government, so he started collecting samples on his own. Through a grassroots network of Ohio activists, he was able to get them tested in a lab at the University of Pittsburgh. The radioactive element radium measured at levels thousands of times above EPA safe drinking water limits and hundreds of times above limits imposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Though it is still grossly under-studied, in the past few years there has been an increase in academic research focused on the radioactivity issue. The NRDC cites a study published last year by Harvard researchers that analyzed air samples downwind from more than 150,000 unconventional oil and gas wells across the country and found elevated levels of airborne radioactive particles. “As a side effect of the shale boom, academic experts started paying a lot more attention to this issue,” says Mall.

Physicians for Social Responsibility, which together with Concerned Health Professionals of NY publishes a regular compendium that documents all of the scientific and medical research demonstrating risks and harms of fracking, paid special attention to radioactivity in their latest edition, published last December.

Civic engagement has also been increasing around the issue. Medina County, Ohio resident Kathie Jones had long been worried about the radioactive oilfield brine being spread on roads in her community and within the last year was able to get her City Council to halt the practice. “If nothing else, people should think of their children, grandchildren and the harm they are permitting these companies, and the government, to do if they do not speak up and fight back,” Jones tells Rolling Stone. Radium-226, which has been shown by Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources to be present in the brine being spread on roads at levels well above Nuclear Regulatory Commission discharge limits, has a half-life of 1,600 years.

Yet Ohio as a whole is still pushing to expand the practice. Ohio House Bill 282, presently in committee, would classify “treated” brine with radium levels up to 4,000 times EPA’s safe drinking water limits as a commodity so it could be sold legally for de-icing purposes.

In New York, however, environmental groups and concerned residents won a major victory last summer when the state legislature passed a bill to close the loophole that exempts oil and gas waste from hazardous-waste regulations. On August 3rd, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law. Still, “strong action is needed at the federal level to deal with this threat in an appropriately comprehensive way,” Mitch Jones, policy director with Food & Water Watch, one of the main groups that promoted the bill, tells Rolling Stone. “After all, toxic air and water pollution doesn’t recognize state lines.”

And perhaps no state legislator has been following the oilfield radioactivity issue more closely than state Rep. Sara Innamorato in Pennsylvania, who has introduced a pair of bills to close the oil and gas industry’s hazardous waste loophole in her state. “We are actually meeting with a number of organizations from across Pennsylvania as I type this,” Innamorato says. “Since Pennsylvania is the second largest extractor of shale gas in America, we produce an enormous amount of waste. These bills are common sense and place the onus on fracking companies to prove that their waste is not harmful to human health and the environment and be subjected to the same regulations as other industries that handle hazardous waste, instead of using Pennsylvania’s families who live near these municipal waste sites and other disposal wells as experimental test subjects.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Congressman from California Ro Khanna, chairman of the House’s Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on the Environment, held a hearing on Earth Day this past April that took aim at various oil and gas industry loopholes and discussed how fossil fuel subsidies are preventing action on the climate crisis. It featured comments from Ohio resident Jill Antares Hunkler, who was forced to flee a house she built by hand to escape toxic emissions from adjacent fracked gas wells and compressor stations. She calls herself a “fracking refugee.”

“Under the current regulatory framework, there is very limited accountability for the oil and gas companies who engage in fracking,” Khanna tells Rolling Stone. “There is also little ability for the federal government to effectively protect workers and major supplies of drinking water.”

The NRDC report recommends that Congress close the loopholes that put the industry’s workers and the public at risk from radioactive oilfield waste, and that states should institute “state-of-the-art, protective regulations” for the radioactive material generated by the oil and gas industry, as well as a much more robust set of standards to protect industry workers, including training, proper PPE, and monitoring of emissions and levels.

Rolling Stone asked the EPA whether they believed oilfield waste is putting oil and gas industry workers and the public at risk, why the agency had not done more to collect data on the topic, and if the agency believes the oil and gas industry enjoys an inappropriate exemption with the Bentsen and Bevill Amendments. “EPA takes its mission to protect public health and the environment seriously, and is committed to holding violators accountable for pollution in American communities, especially in overburdened communities,” replied Tim Carroll, deputy press secretary. “EPA looks forward to reviewing the NRDC report and will respond accordingly.”

“The challenge here is that the lack of regulation means that we don’t have all the data that we should, and then the lack of data is used as an excuse for why we don’t have regulations,” says Mall. “Without the information the public doesn’t know how best to protect themselves.”

She adds, “I think it would be wonderful for EPA to do a study, but we have enough information now to know that we need stronger rules. We don’t need to wait for more studies to strengthen the rules.”

Best of Rolling Stone