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Duke Study: Rivers Contaminated With Radium and Lead From Thousands of Fracking Wastewater Spills
Thousands of oil and gas industry wastewater spills in North Dakota have caused “widespread” contamination from radioactive materials, heavy metals and corrosive salts, putting the health of people and wildlife at risk, researchers from Duke University concluded in a newly released peer-reviewed study.
Some rivers and streams in North Dakota now carry levels of radioactive and toxic materials higher than federal drinking water standards as a result of wastewater spills, the scientists found after testing near spills. Many cities and towns draw their drinking water from rivers and streams, though federal law generally requires drinking water to be treated before it reaches peoples' homes and the scientists did not test tap water as part of their research.
High levels of lead—the same heavy metal that infamously contaminated water in Flint, Michigan—as well as the radioactive element radium, were discovered near spill sites. One substance, selenium, was found in the state's waters at levels as high as 35 times the federal thresholds set to protect fish, mussels and other wildlife, including those that people eat.
The pollution was found on land as well as in water. The soils in locations where wastewater spilled were laced with significant levels of radium and even higher levels of radium were discovered in the ground downstream from the spills' origin points, showing that radioactive materials were soaking into the ground and building up as spills flowed over the ground, the researchers said.
The sheer number of spills in the past several years is striking. All told, the Duke University researchers mapped out a total of more than 3,900 accidental spills of oil and gas wastewater in North Dakota alone.
Contamination remained at the oldest spill site tested, where roughly 300 barrels of wastewater were released in a spill four years before the team of researchers arrived to take samples, demonstrating that any cleanup efforts at the site had been insufficient.
“Unlike spilled oil, which starts to break down in soil, these spilled brines consist of inorganic chemicals, metals and salts that are resistant to biodegradation,” said Nancy Lauer, a Duke University PhD student who was lead author of the study, which was published in Environmental Science & Technology. “They don't go away; they stay.”
“This has created a legacy of radioactivity at spill sites,” she said.
The highest level of radium the scientists found in soil measured more than 4,600 Bequerels per kilogram [bq/kg]—which translates to roughly two and half times the levels of fracking-related radioactive contamination discovered in Pennsylvania in a 2013 report that drew national attention. To put those numbers in context, under North Dakota law, waste more than 185 bq/kg is considered too radioactive to dispose in regular landfills without a special permit or to haul on roads without a specific license from the state.
And that radioactive contamination—in some places more than 100 times the levels of radioactivity as found upstream from the spill—will be here to stay for millennia, the researchers concluded, unless unprecedented spill clean-up efforts are made.
“The results of this study indicate that the water contamination from brine spills is remarkably persistent in the environment, resulting in elevated levels of salts and trace elements that can be preserved in spill sites for at least months to years,” the study concluded. “The relatively long half-life of [Radium 226] (∼1600 years) suggests that [Radium] contamination in spill sites will remain for thousands of years.”
Cleanup efforts remain underway at three of the four sites that the Duke University research team sampled, a North Dakota State Health Department official asked to comment on the research told the Bismarck Tribune, while the fourth site had not yet been addressed. He criticized the researchers for failing to include any in-depth testing of sites where the most extensive types of cleanup efforts had been completed.
The four sites the researchers sampled instead included the locations of two of the biggest spills in the state's history, including a spill of 2.9 million gallons in January 2015 and two areas where smaller spills occurred in 2011. The samples from the sites were collected in June 2015, with funding from the National Science Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
Over the past decade, roughly 9,700 wells have been drilled in North Dakota's Bakken shale and Bottineu oilfield region—meaning that there has been over one spill reported to regulators for every three wells drilled.
“Until now, research in many regions of the nation has shown that contamination from fracking has been fairly sporadic and inconsistent,” Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, said when the study was released. “In North Dakota, however, we find it is widespread and persistent, with clear evidence of direct water contamination from fracking.”
Dealing with wastewater generated by drilling and fracking has proved to be one of the shale industry's most intractable problems. The industry often pumps its toxic waste underground in a process known as wastewater injection. Every day, roughly 2 billion gallons of oil and gas wastewater are injected into the ground nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Wastewater injection has been linked to swarms of earthquakes that have prompted a series of legal challenges.
The sheer volume of waste generated by the industry—particularly from the type of high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing used to tap shale oil and gas—has often overwhelmed state regulators, especially because federal laws leave the waste exempt from hazardous waste handling laws, no matter how toxic or dangerous it might be, under an exception for the industry carved out in the 1980's.
This leaves policing fracking waste up to state inspectors and not only do the rules vary widely from state to state, but enforcing those rules brings its own difficulties.
State inspectors have faced escalating workloads as budgets have often failed to keep pace with the industry's rapid expansion. In North Dakota, the number of wells per inspector climbed from roughly 359 each in 2012 to 500 per inspector last year. In other states, the ratios are even more challenging, with Wyoming oil and gas well inspectors being responsible for more than 2,900 wells in 2015. And now, with the collapse of oil and gas prices, funds earmarked for oil and gas inspection have also nosedived in many states.
Lax enforcement may help explain why wastewater spills are so common across the U.S. More than 180 million gallons of wastewater was spilled between 2009 and 2014, according to an investigation by the Associated Press, which tallied the amount of wastewater spilled in the 21,651 accidents that were reported to state or federal regulators nationwide during that time.
The naturally occurring radioactive materials in that wastewater have drawn particular concern, partly because of their longevity in the environment and partly because the drilling industry enjoys looser federal standards for their radioactive waste than many other industries.
In January, North Dakota regulators further relaxed their standards for the dumping of radioactive materials, allowing many landfills in the state to accept drilling waste at levels higher than previously permitted, citing tough economic times for drillers.
But environmentalists argue that relaxing the rules for radioactive waste disposal could mean that radioactive materials receive less careful handling. “If people think this study points to a building tragedy, just wait,” Darrell Dorgan, who chairs the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, told the Bismarck Tribune, when the Duke University research was released. “The new rules allow radioactive waste that is 10 times more dangerous.”
The spills the Duke University researchers identified often resulted from a failure to maintain infrastructure including pipelines and storage tanks. Roughly half of the wastewater spilled came from failed pipelines, followed by leaks from valves and other pipe connectors and then tank leaks or overflows.
But recent floods in Texas's Eagle Ford shale region also highlight the risks that natural disasters in drilling regions might pose. Texas regulators photographed plumes of contamination around submerged drilling sites, a repeat of similar incidents in Colorado. “That’s a potential disaster,” Dr. Walter Tsou, former president of the American Public Health Association told the Dallas Morning News.
Risks associated with fracking in flood zones have drawn the attention of some federal agencies in the past, but perhaps not in a way that locals in affected areas might find helpful.
In 2012, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program—a program designed to help people move away from areas subject to recurring floods—ran into a series of conflicts over oil and gas leases on properties that would otherwise be offered buy-outs. Some homeowners in Pennsylvania were denied the chance to participate in the program because of oil and gas leases or pipelines on their properties, as DeSmog previously reported.
In other words, it may be harder for those who have signed oil and gas or pipeline leases to abandon flood-prone areas, meaning that homeowners whose properties frequently flood could potentially face battles over cleanup costs without aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
And the newly published research from North Dakota suggests that the less visible brines may ultimately be more of a long-lasting environmental hazard than the spilled oil.
Even though their study included only leaks that were reported to state regulators, the researchers warned that little is currently being done to clean up sites where spills have occurred—or even to track smaller spills, especially on reservation lands, where roughly a quarter of the state's oil is produced.
This means that the real amount of wastewater spilled is likely even higher than currently reported.
“Many smaller spills have also occurred on tribal lands,” Prof. Vengosh said, “and as far as we know, no one is monitoring them.”
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By Tara Smith
Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.
Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.
Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.
From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.
Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.
Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.
Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?
Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.
When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.
The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.
The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.
But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.
Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.
This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
By Natalie Hanman
Why are you publishing this book now?
I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.
The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?
When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.
What's stopping the left doing this?
In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.
Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?
I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.
That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.
This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.
One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?
When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?
I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.
This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.
In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?
In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.
Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...
Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.
Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?
I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?
Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?
It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.
What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?
One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.
You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?
I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.
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By Ben Jervey
Drivers of electric cars are being unfairly punished by punitive fees in several states, according to a newly published analysis by Consumer Reports. Legislators in 26 states have enacted or proposed special registration fees for electric vehicles (EVs) that the consumer advocacy group found to be more expensive than the gas taxes paid by the driver of an average new gasoline vehicle.
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