The “Secret of the Century”: Many Oil-and-Gas Workers Handle Radioactive Materials Every Day
The oil-and-gas industry produces almost a trillion gallons of toxic waste a year—and a new investigation shows that this radioactive waste could be the cause of workers and communities getting very sick across America.
What many people assumed was a relatively safe job has raised glaring concerns in the last year as rising evidence suggests that many oil and gas workers are being exposed to radioactive materials—without their knowledge.
One Rolling Stone article dives into the stories of some workers who learned of their occupational hazards through the grapevine and not their employers. Author of the piece, Justin Nobel, is writing a book about the radioactive hazards of the oil and gas industry and about this problem that has gone unaddressed.
Nobel tells the story of a man named Peter whose job is to truck waste for the oil-and-gas industry. His mornings start at 3 a.m. and end after daylight, but his wages were considerably better than some of the other jobs he had access to in the run-down area where he lived near the Ohio/West Virginia/Pennsylvania border.
Ever since Peter took the job back in 2014, he has hauled a squat rig fitted with a 5,000-gallon tank on his truck. The substance he transports is called “brine”—a salty, naturally-occurring waste product that gushes from oil-and-gas wells in amounts of nearly 1 trillion gallons a year. That’s enough to flood Manhattan, almost shin-high, every single day.
It is not uncommon for oil-and-gas wells to produce almost 10 times as much brine as oil or gas. But it is a natural, and somewhat useless, waste material, so the industry needs men like Peter to collect it in tanks and haul it to treatment plants or injection wells, where it’s “disposed” of by being re-injected back into the earth.
Peter did this job for nearly three years, every day, before he had even the slightest thought that this so-called “useless” brine was actually dangerous, let alone radioactive. In 2017, he pulled up to an injection well in Cambridge, Ohio. A worker with a hand-held radiation detector walked around his truck and told him he was carrying one of the “hottest loads” he’d ever seen.
If you remember from middle school science class, the Earth’s crust has a lot of radioactive elements that are concentrated deep in its layers. When oil and gas is extracted, this radioactivity is often extracted too—in the form of brine. Radioactivity is not just the dangerous element often associated with nuclear bombs—it’s a naturally occurring substance that, in many substances, pose somewhat minor risks to human health.
Many representatives believed brine to be low in radioactive hazards. This is why Peter’s concerns he brought to his employer about the brine’s hazard were brushed off. He was told the substance was no more radioactive than “any room of your home.”
However, the article goes on to say that Peter was not convinced. He had seen coworkers fall sick, or even get cancer or develop “sores or skin lesions that take months to heal.” Peter himself sometimes experiences headaches and nausea, numbness in his fingertips and face, and “joint pain like fire.”
Peter’s PPE does not do much to protect him from radioactivity, either. While he wears steel-toed boots, safety glasses, a hard hat, and clothes with flash-resistant coating, he does not wear a respirator or a dosimeter to measure radioactivity exposure.
Still, brine often gets all over him on the job. “It’s all over your hands, and inside your boots, and on the cuticles of your toes, and any cuts you have—you’re soaked,” Peter said.
Peter took it upon himself to investigate just exactly what he was working with. He began taking small samples of the brine home and storing them in a shed in his backyard. Eventually, he had collected over 40 samples so that if he got sick down the road, he can have something to prove his case with. He was worried about further contamination but said, for him, “the damage is already done.” This was about proof.
Eventually, Peter got 11 of his brine samples tested at the Center for Environmental Research and Education Duquesne University through a lab at the University of Pittsburgh. The results shocked him.
Radium—the most abundant radionuclide in brine—is often measured in picocuries per liter of substance, and it’s so dangerous that it’s usually subject to very tight restrictions even at hazardous-waste sites. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires industrial discharges to remain below 60 for radium isotopes. Four of Peter’s samples registered combined radium levels above 3,500, and one was over 8,500.
“It’s ridiculous that these drivers are not being told what’s in their trucks,” says John Stolz, Duquesne’s environmental-center director. “And this stuff is on every corner—it is in neighborhoods. Truckers don’t know they’re being exposed to radioactive waste, nor are they being provided with protective clothing."
While any exposure to radioactive materials is hazardous, breathing it in or ingesting it is the worst type of exposure. The radioactive particles can be blocked by the skin, but radium attaches to dust, which makes it easy to accidentally inhale or ingest. Once inside the body, it’s known to cause bone cancers called sarcomas, decay into other radioactive elements, cause chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and even cause death.
Unfortunately, Peter’s case is not isolated. Oil fields across the country—from North Dakota to Texas—have been found to produce highly radioactive brine. “All oil-field workers are radiation workers,” said Ian Fairlie, a British radiation biologist. But they don’t necessarily know it.
The article goes on to discuss how this problem is not just affecting the workers that handle the brine. Many communities are nearer and nearer to oil-and-gas drill sites. There are about 1 million active oil-and-gas wells, across 33 states. Many people feel as though there are not enough laws that protect citizens from oil-and-gas drilling hazards. In fact, said Teresa Mills of the Buckeye Environmental Network, “there is no protection for citizens at all—nothing.”
The ongoing investigation of all of this has involved scientists, environmentalists, regulators, and workers, and the Rolling Stone calls it a “sweeping arc of contamination.” Oil-and-gas waste is spilled, spread, and dumped “across America.” It is putting citizens, workers, and communities at grave risk, the article said. And there is no protection.
You might be wondering why people have not been told about this hazard until now. Well, like with most cancers, it is challenging to pinpoint on direct cause. Plus, brine is a relatively new to human exposure (within the last few decades), and scientists are still studying all of the health hazards it has. It is difficult to say that the oil-and-gas industry caused a person’s cancer and easier to say “You did this to yourself.”
However, there have been cases that successfully linked occupational exposure with health issues. A set of recent legal cases and testimony in lawsuits by a number of Louisiana oil-and-gas workers settled in 2016, and it had significant outcomes:
It showed that pipe cleaners, welders, roughnecks, roustabouts, derrickmen, and truck drivers hauling dirty pipes and sludge all were exposed to radioactivity without their knowledge and suffered a litany of lethal cancers. An analysis program developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined with up to 99 percent certainty that the cancers came from exposure to radioactivity on the job. Employees’ clothes, and even licking their lips or eating lunch, increased exposure risk.
Marvin Resnikoff, a nuclear physicist and radioactive-waste specialist who served as an expert witness, says that in every case the workers won or the industry settled.
Further investigation by the Rolling Stone shows that the oil-and-gas industry did, in fact, know about brine’s (and other sludge’s) radioactive hazards before Peter’s case—and the industry has known for many years. There are a number of documents, books, and court cases—some dating back to the 1930s—that raise concerns about the radioactivity of the substances. Still, workers work with these materials every day without knowledge of its toxicity.
The conversation is further complicated by the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not required—since a 1980 exemption took effect—to treat oil-and-gas well waste as hazardous waste. This means that the responsibility has been largely left to the states. In fact, 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 Geltman, the public-health expert.
The conversation of radioactive oil-and-gas materials was resurfaced again when the New York Times ran a front-page story in 1990 headlined “Radiation Danger Found in Oil Fields Across the Nation.” Another Times story that year raised further concerns about the oil-and-gas substances, saying they could be even more dangerous than radiation levels in nuclear power plants.
“They’ve known [about the hazards] for 110 years, but they haven’t done anything about it,” said Paul Templet, the former secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the first state official to tackle oil’s radioactivity issue. “It’s the secret of the century.”
The Stone article provides other testimonies from workers and even citizens that have not only come into contact with brine, but also become sick from it. This is not only an employee health concern: this is a public health concern, the Stone suggests, and it has been neglected for years.
For more information about the investigation and the evidence and documents involved, read the whole article here