Tuesday, July 27, 2021

NRDC: Regulation Is Too Weak For Radioactive Oil And Gas Drilling Wastewater, Other Waste

By Amy Mall, Natural Resources Defense Council

This article first appeared on the NRDC Blog July 21, 2021--

The U.S. oil and gas industry produced an estimated one trillion gallons of produced water in 2017. And this waste—along with drilling and fracking waste--can contain radioactive elements known as “technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material,” or TENORM. 

A new NRDC report describes these risks and how weak regulations fail to appropriately protect workers and communities.

TENORM that is not adequately managed poses significant health threats to oil and gas workers and their families and people who live near oil and gas operations. Nearby residents may face an increased risk of cancer. 

Making the situation even more dangerous, many oil and gas activities take place in residential neighborhoods, in close proximity to homes, schools, and playgrounds. My colleague Bemnet Alemayehu details the health threats from oil and gas TENORM here.

Despite the clear health risks, there are no dedicated federal regulations to ensure comprehensive and safer management of radioactive oil and gas materials. 

Bedrock federal environmental, health, and safety laws have gaping loopholes and exemptions that allow radioactive oil and gas materials to go virtually unregulated, including the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that governs waste management, the Atomic Energy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. Rules to protect workers, including truck drivers, also have significant gaps.

The Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors, an association of state and local professionals, has concluded that “no federal regulations explicitly govern the management and disposal of TENORM associated with the oil and gas industry.”

State regulations are also filled with gaps that allow unsafe practices for radioactive oil and gas waste. 

NRDC worked with Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services to review state regulations in the 12 states with the most oil and gas production. We looked at regulations for landfills that accept oil and gas waste, road-spreading, discharging into surface waters, and burying waste on a wellpad. 

Our review found that 4 of the 12 states have no standards at all for the level of radioactive material in oil and gas waste that can be accepted at landfills, only 3 require monitoring of radioactive material in the wastewater that leaches out of landfills, and 10 allow oil and gas waste to be spread on roads for uses such as dust suppression, deicing, or road maintenance.

Compounding the problem, radioactive oil and gas wastes are frequently transported across state lines as waste haulers take advantage of the lack of consistent state regulations to search for the cheapest or easiest way to dispose of radioactive material.

What does this mean for workers and communities? 

Our report details case studies where scientific research has found radioactive materials at high levels being released into the environment in Kentucky, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming.

[In Pennsylvania, the report specifically says--

In recent years, scientists have found high levels of radioactive material linked to oil and gas waste in Pennsylvania waterways. 

One study examined sediment from two locations in Conemaugh River Lake; one sample site was 6 miles downstream from a centralized waste treatment plant that accepts oil and gas wastewater, and the second site was 12 miles downstream from a different plant. 

The scientists found strontium and radium that matched the geochemical signatures of oil and gas wastewater. The lake is used for recreation, including fishing and swimming.

Another study found high levels of radium-226 and radium-228 in sediment from the Allegheny River, Blacklick Creek, and McKee Run, downstream from centralized waste treatment facilities that accept oil and gas E&P waste. 

These radium levels were up to 650 times the levels in the water upstream of the treatment plants. 

Pennsylvania had formally asked companies to stop disposing of oil and gas wastewater from unconventional formations in these wastewater treatment plants in 2011, but disposal of wastewater from conventional operations continues to be allowed.

Researchers were able to date the radium found in this study to a time after 2011, making it clear that the limited restrictions on wastewater disposal are not enough to protect Pennsylvanians’ health.

In another case, fluid leaching out of a landfill that accepts oil and gas waste, known as leachate, was being sent to a wastewater treatment plant that was not able to filter out all the radioactive material. 

The wastewater treatment plant was discharging water that exceeded the safe drinking water standard for radioactive material into the Monongahela River, less than a mile upriver from a community drinking water source. 

Road Dumping

Pennsylvania also allows oil and gas wastewater to be spread on roads, mostly in the summer months for dust suppression on dirt or gravel roads in the western part of the state. 

An average of more than 130 million liters were spread on Pennsylvania roads each year from 2008 to 2014. 

Scientists tested wastewater in tanks used for road spreading and found a median radioactivity level of 1,230 pCi/l, well above the federal standard for safe drinking water of 5 pCi/l. 

They simulated rainfall on roads treated with oil and gas wastewater and found that about half of the radium in the wastewater was carried by rain off the road.]

In order to protect vulnerable populations, state and federal lawmakers must take action to impose strong safeguards for oil and gas waste. 

Congress must close the oil and gas gaps in our federal laws so that oil and gas companies have to comply with the same laws that apply to other industries. 

In addition, states should establish comprehensive, state-of-the-art, protective regulations for the radioactive material generated by the oil and gas industry.

You can find more detailed information and recommendations in our report, available here.


-- StateImpactPA/Reid Frazier: Group Says Tighter Radiation Controls Needed On Drilling Waste

-- NRDC: How The Lack Of Regulation Of Oil & Gas Production Leads To Radioactive Waste In Our Water, Air And Communities [PA Included]

-- Rolling Stone: The Oil & Gas Industry Produces Radioactive Waste - Lots Of It [PA Included]

-- StateImpactPA/Reid Frazier: DEP To Require Landfills To Test For Radioactivity From Fracking Waste

-- WTOL: Ohio Dept. Of Natural Resources Says Drilling Wastewater Contains Substances That Cause Cancer; Objects To Legislation Allowing Road Dumping

Related Article:

-- Road Dumping Of Oil & Gas Well Wastewater Is Happening Now In Crawford, Erie, Warren Counties As House Prepares To Take Up Bill To Make It Legal

[Posted: July 27, 2021]  PA Environment Digest

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