EDITED TO ADD: The article discussed below appears to be extremely misleading, to judge by comments left by well-informed readers (see below). In particular, my thanks to commenter Henry for this link to an analysis debunking Rolling Stone’s claims. It’s a bit technical, but does a pretty good job, IMHO.
Rolling Stone has published an extended article alleging that the brine discharged from many oil drilling operations is highly radioactive, and poses a severe health hazard.
Oil fields across the country — from the Bakken in North Dakota to the Permian in Texas — have been found to produce brine that is highly radioactive. “All oil-field workers,” says Fairlie, “are radiation workers.” But they don’t necessarily know it.
Tanks, filters, pumps, pipes, hoses, and trucks that brine touches can all become contaminated, with the radium building up into hardened “scale,” concentrating to as high as 400,000 picocuries per gram. With fracking — which involves sending pressurized fluid deep underground to break up layers of shale — there is dirt and shattered rock, called drill cuttings, that can also be radioactive. But brine can be radioactive whether it comes from a fracked or conventional well; the levels vary depending on the geological formation, not drilling method. Colorado and Wyoming seem to have lower radioactive signatures, while the Marcellus shale, underlying Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York, has tested the highest. Radium in its brine can average around 9,300 picocuries per liter, but has been recorded as high as 28,500. “If I had a beaker of that on my desk and accidentally dropped it on the floor, they would shut the place down,” says Yuri Gorby, a microbiologist who spent 15 years studying radioactivity with the Department of Energy. “And if I dumped it down the sink, I could go to jail.”
The advent of the fracking boom in the early 2000s expanded the danger, saddling the industry with an even larger tidal wave of waste to dispose of, and creating new exposure risks as drilling moved into people’s backyards. “In the old days, wells weren’t really close to population centers. Now, there is no separation,” says City University of New York public-health expert Elizabeth Geltman. In the eastern U.S. “we are seeing astronomically more wells going up,” she says, “and we can drill closer to populations because regulations allow it.” As of 2016, fracking accounted for more than two-thirds of all new U.S. wells, according to the Energy Information Administration. There are about 1 million active oil-and-gas wells, across 33 states, with some of the biggest growth happening in the most radioactive formation — the Marcellus. And some regulations have only gotten weaker. “Legislators have laid out a careful set of exemptions that allow this industry to exist,” says Teresa Mills of the Buckeye Environmental Network, an Ohio community-organizing group. “There is no protection for citizens at all — nothing.”
In an investigation involving hundreds of interviews with scientists, environmentalists, regulators, and workers, Rolling Stone found a sweeping arc of contamination — oil-and-gas waste spilled, spread, and dumped across America, posing under-studied risks to the environment, the public, and especially the industry’s own employees. There is little public awareness of this enormous waste stream, the disposal of which could present dangers at every step — from being transported along America’s highways in unmarked trucks; handled by workers who are often misinformed and underprotected; 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 hardware stores and is spread on local roads as a de-icer.
“Essentially what you are doing is taking an underground radioactive reservoir and bringing it to the surface where it can interact with people and the environment,” says Marco Kaltofen, a nuclear-forensics scientist at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “Us bringing this stuff to the surface is like letting out the devil,” says Fairlie. “It is just madness.”
There’s more at the link.
I’ve read the entire report, and I strongly urge you to do the same. It’s of direct and immediate relevance here in north Texas, where many people work in the oil producing areas of the state, commuting back and forth once a month to see their families. There’s a big oilfield engineering and supply outfit only a few miles from my home, and brine – sourced cheaply, I presume, from oilfield waste products, as mentioned in the Rolling Stone article – is spread on our roads during winter to inhibit ice formation and build-up.
I find it hard to believe that so serious a danger could become so widespread without something having been done about it; after all, the article points out that DoE staff have been analyzing oilfield radioactivity for years. Even so, I guess, bureaucratic inertia has been with us for as long as there have been bureaucrats. I don’t think this is something that can be blamed on any one President or administration, either. If so much radiation has been around for so long, it must surely have been brought to the attention of the authorities long ago. Why nothing appears to have been done about it is a question that remains unanswered . . . at least, so far. However, I’ll bet it goes back to last century, if not all the way back to the Curie family and their investigations into radioactivity.
This can’t be a “new” problem. It’s got to have been around for as long as oil wells have been drilled. If that’s the case, why haven’t cases of radiation sickness been more widely encountered in oil workers – much less more widely reported? And is this only an American oil industry problem? Is it also encountered in Middle Eastern oil fields, and elsewhere in the world? If not, why not?
Is the report trustworthy? I don’t know. There are many individuals and pressure groups opposed to the use of fossil fuels, and some of them may not be particularly ethical or scrupulous in their use of information – real or fake – to put pressure on that industry. However, I think there’s certainly enough evidence mentioned in the article, including testing radioactivity levels to which workers are exposed, to warrant a very thorough investigation by the authorities. I hope it happens quickly, before too many more of us are exposed to this potential danger.