The dangerous radioactive secret of big oil companies

The dangerous radioactive secret of big oil companies

In Paris, France, there are good cafes and famous monuments. But what no one really knows is that on the other end of a building known as The V, in the northeast of the city, is a portal that leads to a secret pile of trash of fracking from the woods of West Virginia. Much more than just oil and gas comes to the surface from an oil and gas well, including billions of pounds of waste every day in the United States, much of it toxic and radioactive. My adventure on this topic began when a community organizer in Ohio told me that someone was making a liquid de-icer from radioactive oil field waste for home driveways and decks, which was supposed to be “pet safe” and was sold at Lowe’s. As you will see, this was indeed the case. Understanding how it turned into a 20-month Rolling Stone magazine investigation, which won a National Association of Science Writers award, and a whole series of shocking investigations into DeSmog. And eventually it all became this book, Petroleum 238: the dangerous secret of the big oil companies and the popular struggle to stop it – available here on Amazon, here on Bookshop, or it can be ordered from any local bookstore.

It almost seems unreal and you might deny it. But in reality, all that happened here was that a powerful industry wreaked havoc across the country, its people and, more than anyone, its own workers, and did what it could to ensure that no one ever puts all the pieces of the puzzle together. And no one ever has – until now. A lot of people tell me there’s nothing to see here, the levels aren’t that bad. But unfortunately, this is the same thing that has often been said to the shadow network of radioactive waste workers in the oil and gas industry. So they work, shoveling and collecting trash, mixing it with lime and coal ash and grinding corncobs to try to reduce radioactivity levels, without proper protection, sometimes in just T-shirts, eating lunch and smoking cigarettes and occasionally have barbecues in this absurdly contaminated workspace. Mud splattered all over their bodies, liquid waste splashing their faces, eyes and mouths, inhaling radioactive dust, waste eating away at their boots, soaking their socks, encrusting their clothes which will often be taken home and washed in family laundry. machine, or a local hotel, further spreading the contamination. Oil field waste has been dumped, spread, injected, dumped and emitted freely across this country. And the contamination was dumped — sometimes illegally, often legally — into the same rivers where American cities get their drinking water.

More radioactivity than in Chernobyl

The other month I visited an abandoned fracking waste processing plant on a major American river where local children were unknowingly partying. It was littered with beer cans and condoms and parts of it were more deeply contaminated by radioactivity than much of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. I was there with a former Department of Energy scientist and his Geiger counter sounded a terrifying alarm – at about 2 milliroentgens per hour. He had samples analyzed at a radiological analysis laboratory and found that the radioactive element radium was 5,000 times higher than general background levels.

It’s all in industry research and reports. And that is the beauty of science, an incredible testimony to our world and its paths traced through time, and like a sacred language it moves through time, collecting new fragments and building. It can be traced back to 1904, when a 25-year-old Canadian graduate student named Eli described “experiments with a highly radioactive gas obtained from crude oil.” Or in 1982, when a report by the American Petroleum Institute’s Committee on Environmental Biology and Community Health stated: “Nearly all materials of interest to and use by the petroleum industry contain measurable amounts of radionuclides that ultimately reside in the processing equipment, product streams or waste. » Radium, they warn, is “a potent source of radiation exposure, both internal and external,” while the radioactive gas radon and its descendants polonium “lead to significant demographic and occupational exposures.” Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer deaths in the United States and naturally contaminates natural gas. Which means it is emitted from domestic stoves in some parts of the country at levels high enough to cause public health risks and, ultimately, cancers and deaths. The 1982 American Petroleum Institute report concluded: “Regulation of radionuclides could impose a heavy burden on API member companies. »

And they triumphed, because radioactivity brought to the surface during oil and gas development has never been regulated by the federal government and still is not. The industry obtained a federal exemption in 1980 that legally defined its waste as nonhazardous, although it contained toxic chemicals, carcinogens, heavy metals and radioactivity. As nuclear forensics specialist Marco Kaltofen told me: “With fossil fuels, what you’re essentially doing is taking an underground radioactive reservoir and bringing it to the surface where it can interact with people and environment. And he also said this: “Radiation is complex and difficult to understand, but it leaves hundreds of clues. »

A state inspector noticed an “Austin Master Services employee picking up waste while loading a truck for transportation” at the Martins Ferry oil field waste facility during an August visit 2018. Credit: Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Inspection report from August 23, 2018

Known to few, the mineral scale and sludge that accumulates in our more than 321,000 miles of natural gas gathering and transportation pipelines may be filled with staggering levels of the same isotope of polonium that the assassins used in 2006 for assassinating former Russian security officer Alexander. Litvinenko, pouring less than a grain of sand into his tea at a London hotel bar. According to a 1993 article on oilfield radioactivity, published in the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ Journal of Petroleum Technology, sludge from gas pipelines can become so radioactive that it requires “the same handling as waste low activity radioactive substances. And yet, according to American law, this product is still considered non-hazardous. Unlike the cosmic radiation an airline passenger is exposed to or the X-rays from a scanner, moving around radioactive oil field sludge or scale invariably creates dust and particles that an unprotected worker can easily inhale or ingest, thereby bringing radioactive elements inside one’s body. body where they can disintegrate and emit radiation into the intimate and vulnerable space of the lungs, intestines, bones or blood.

Then the real revelation is that the oil and gas workers that politicians routinely celebrate have their bodies and clothing covered in waste that may be toxic and radioactive but legally defined as non-hazardous. I now ask these politicians, as workers regularly ask me, is this product still not dangerous when they breathe it? Or follow him through the door of their house and into their family? This same 1980 exemption allows radioactive waste from oil fields to be transported seamlessly from foreign countries across U.S. borders and deposited in the West Texas desert. I’ve been there.

An “amazing scientific story”

It’s a story about working-class justice. This is a story of environmental justice. It’s an amazing scientific story. We live on a radioactive planet, and oil and gas contain some of the most interesting and notorious radioactive elements on Earth. They can be concentrated in the formation below and then further concentrated by industrial processes on the surface. Since day one, which dates back to 1859 in the United States, the American oil and gas industry has had no clear idea of ​​what to do with these wastes. And so began an extraordinary campaign to get rid of it all. Modern fracking has only made the problem worse, mining even more radioactive formations, bringing drilling closer to communities, and dramatically increasing the amount of waste.

At a congressional hearing in 1979, Texas oil field regulators, using figures calculated by the American Petroleum Institute, provided a clue as to what more stringent regulations, those that actually classified waste as the most dangerous oil fields, could mean for the industry: a “one-time cost of more than $34 billion to bring existing operations into compliance” and “up to $10.8 billion per year.” That figure would be considerably higher today, but no one has done the math, in part because the full picture of costs and harms remains unknown.

Whether it’s a multinational company based in Paris or a man from rural Pennsylvania who hid fracking waste under a courthouse, readers will be surprised how deep this rabbit hole goes and proximity to what they call home, or the things they cherish. It is from this ignorance and deception that this book can exist. My challenge to you is to read it to the end and realize that this is not a book about despair – to say it is to know it, it is to change it.


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