1982 American Petroleum Institute Report Warned Oil Workers Faced 'Significant' Risks From Radioactivity
By Sharon Kelly
Back in April last year, the Trump administration's Environmental Protection Agency decided it was "not necessary" to update the rules for toxic waste from oil and gas wells. Torrents of wastewater flow daily from the nation's 1.5 million active oil and gas wells and the agency's own research has warned it may pose risks to the country's drinking water supplies.
On Tuesday, a major new investigative report published by Rolling Stone and authored by reporter Justin Nobel delves deep into the risks that the oil and gas industry's waste — much of it radioactive — poses to the industry's own workers and to the public.
"There is little public awareness of this enormous waste stream," Nobel, who also reports for DeSmog, wrote, "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."
Additional documents obtained by Nobel and shared with DeSmog show that a report prepared for the American Petroleum Institute (API), the nation's largest oil and gas trade group, described the risks posed by the industry's radioactive wastes to workers as "significant" in 1982 — long before the shale drilling rush unleashed new floods of wastewater from the industry — including waste from the Marcellus Shale, which can carry unusually high levels of radioactive contamination.
A Trillion Toxic Gallons
Oil and gas wells pump out nearly a trillion gallons of wastewater a year, Rolling Stone reported. That's literally a river of waste — enough to replace all the water flowing from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico for more than two and a half days.
Much of that wastewater, often referred to by the industry as "brine," carries high levels, not of familiar table salt, but of corrosive salts found deep below the Earth's surface, as well as toxic compounds and carcinogens.
That water can also carry serious amounts of radioactive materials. The Rolling Stone report, labeled "sobering" by the Poynter Institute, described levels of radium as high as 28,500 picocuries per liter in brine from the Marcellus Shale, underlying Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and West Virginia, levels hundreds of times as much as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would allow in industrial discharges from other industries.
The oil and gas industry's waste, however, isn't regulated like most other industry's wastes, slipping instead through loopholes carved out in the nation's cornerstone environmental laws, including exemptions for the industry in federal laws covering hazardous waste.
"If I had a beaker of that on my desk and accidentally dropped it on the floor, they would shut the place down," Yuri Gorby, a microbiologist who'd studied radioactive materials at the U.S. Geological Survey and Department of Energy, told the magazine. "And if I dumped it down the sink, I could go to jail."
Crude Oil, Gas, and Radiation
Excerpt from a 1982 report prepared for the American Petroleum Institute and titled "An Analysis of the Impact of the Regulation of 'Radionuclides' as a Hazardous Air Pollutant on the Petroleum Industry."
"It is well-known that some naturally occurring elements, uranium for example, have an affinity for crude oil," the 1982 API report says, noting that uranium can decay into elements like radium-226 ("a potent source of radiation exposure, both internal and external," API's report explained) and radon-222 (which can "cause the most severe impact to public health," it observed).
"Almost all materials of interest and use to the petroleum industry contain measurable quantities of radionuclides that reside finally in process equipment, product streams, or waste," the 1982 report notes.
"This contamination can produce significant occupational exposures," API's report continued (emphasis in original).
API's report focused on the possibility that the federal government might step in and regulate those radioactive materials under the Clean Air Act or under federal Superfund laws.
"Depending on the mode of definition," the report adds, "very small quantities of petroleum products could easily contain reportable quantities of [radioactive materials]." A chart lists amounts as small as a half a barrel of crude oil or 17 cubic feet of natural gas as containing "one reportable quantity of uranium or radon" under the most restrictive definition.
The report labels uranium "a somewhat different dilemma" than radon gas. "We estimated earlier in this paper that significant quantities of uranium potentially enter our refineries via crude oil," the report continues. "Little is known of its fate, however."
"Since the law of conservation of matter must apply, it can only end up in the product, the process waste, remain in the process equipment, or escape into the environment," the report notes, calling for more study, particularly of the industry's refining equipment and waste.
Some of the report's most stark language warned about the possibility of federal regulation of the industry's radioactive wastes.
"It is concluded that the regulation of radionuclides could impose a severe burden on API member companies," the report says, "and it would be prudent to monitor closely both regulatory actions."
API spokesperson Reid Porter provided to DeSmog the group's response to the Rolling Stone investigation.
"We take each report of safety or health issues related to energy development very seriously," Porter said. "Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our workers, the local environment, and the communities where we live, operate, and raise families. Natural gas and oil companies meet or exceed strict federal and state regulations and also undergo regular inspections to ensure that all materials are managed, stored, transported, and disposed of safely. Through regular monitoring, ongoing testing, and strict handling protocols, industry operations are guided by internationally recognized standards and best practices to provide for safe working environments and public safety."
API also pointed to a one-page document titled "NORM [naturally occurring radioactive materials] in the Oil and Natural Gas Industry." As of publication time, API had not responded to questions from DeSmog regarding the 1982 report.
10 Years Later, Hazards 'Widespread'; 20 Years Later, Workers Sue Over Cancers
Over a decade later, problems persisted, other documents indicate. "Contamination of oil and gas facilities with naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) is widespread," a 1993 paper published by the Society of Petroleum Engineers warned. "Some contamination may be sufficiently severe that maintenance and other personnel may be exposed to hazardous concentration."
Nonetheless, the paper focused on the potential for "over-regulation."
"Where possible, industry input should be directed to minimize an over-regulation of NORM contamination in the industry," author Peter Gray, an expert on radioactivity who formerly worked for Phillips Petroleum Co., wrote. He added that concentrations of radioactive contamination at the time were "relatively low and do not usually present a health hazard to the public or to most personnel in the industry," but added that some facilities "may be hazardous to maintenance personnel in particular."
The 1993 paper notes that some oil-producing states had passed or were considering passing laws to protect against the industry's radioactive wastes, noting in particular that Louisiana and Mississippi had regulations in effect, and that Louisiana had required "radiation surveys of every petroleum facility in the state."
But state and federal regulators largely failed to act, Rolling Stone found. "Of 21 significant oil-and-gas-producing states, only five have provisions addressing workers, and just three include protections for the public, according to research by [Elizabeth Ann Glass] Geltman, the public-health expert," the magazine reported. "Much of the legislation that does exist seems hardly sufficient."
In documents dated nearly two decades later, from a 2011 lawsuit brought by more than 30 Louisiana oilfield workers who'd developed cancer, plaintiff's experts described as resulting from their exposure to radioactive materials at work.
The 2013 plaintiff's expert report describes in detail how jobs like roustabout, roughneck, and derrickman can expose workers to radioactive materials, including a sludge where radioactive elements concentrate that collects inside pipes and so-called "pipe scale," or crusty deposits that also attract radioactive materials. The case ended in October 2016, following a long string of settlements on unspecified terms by individual plaintiffs in the case, public court records show.
Tracking the Trucks
Nobel's Rolling Stone exposé depicts radioactive drilling waste sloshing into a striking array of corners.
For example, to keep dust down, the "brine" can be spread on roads, like a stretch in Pennsylvania where Nobel describes a group of Amish girls strolling barefoot. Nobel adds that contractors pick up waste directly from the wellhead and that in 2016 alone, more than 10.5 million gallons were sprayed on roads in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania.
The waste has also been sold at Lowe's, bottled as "AquaSalina" and marketed as a pet-safe way to fight ice and salt, though an Ohio state lab found it contains radium at more than 40 times the levels the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows in discharge from industry. And the radium-laced waste is spilled from trucks transporting it, in potential what the article indicates may be a violation of federal law.
One brine truck driver, identified only as a man named Peter from Ohio, started taking his own samples after being told by another worker with a radiation detector that he'd been hauling "one of the 'hottest loads' he'd ever seen," Rolling Stone reports. "A lot of guys are coming up with cancer, or sores and skin lesions that take months to heal," Peter told the magazine. Tests by a university lab found radium levels as high as 8,500 picocuries per liter, the article adds.
One expert, scientist Marvin Reisnikoff, who'd served as one of the plaintiff's experts in the lawsuit brought by the Louisiana oilfield workers and co-authored the 2013 report, told Rolling Stone that a standard brine truck rolling through Pennsylvania might be carrying radioactive wastewater at levels a thousand times higher than those allowed under federal Department of Transportation (DOT) limits. But, a DOT spokesperson told Rolling Stone, federal regulators rely heavily on industry self-reporting, and the rules seem generally unenforced.
Environmental groups immediately called for congressional hearings into the drilling industry's radioactive wastes.
"This alarming report brings into stark relief what we already knew to be true," Food & Water Watch Policy Director Mitch Jones said in a statement calling for a congressional investigation, "that highly toxic and radioactive waste generated by fossil fuel drilling and fracking cannot be stored or disposed of safely, and in fact is often being intentionally dispersed in our communities."
"It is imperative that Congress hold hearings soon to examine and expose the full extent of the threat oil and gas waste poses to families and workers throughout America," he added, "and take urgent action to halt fracking and the legal and illegal dispersal of the waste currently taking place."
Reposted with permission from DeSmogBlog.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>