Big Oil and toxic sludge: The problem that won’t go away


Fracking has caused a lot of Americans to focus on the alarming environmental practices of the U.S. oil and gas industry, and that’s perfectly understandable. For one thing, the term “fracking” is still new and  scary sounding to some, and perhaps funny sounding to others. Perhaps more importantly, the boom in unconventional gas drilling has come to a lot of parts of the country, such as Pennsylvania and (potentially) parts of upstate New York, where large-scale energy exploration had not taken place for more than a century.

But as an environmental attorney with a quarter-century of experience in taking on Big Oil, what strikes me about the current American energy boom is how little of the industry’s dirty habits have changed over the years. When I read about radiation-laced water or drilling waste from fracking that’s been dumped unceremoniously into rural streams or that sets off alarms at a town landfill, I’m reminded of my earliest cases in Mississippi. when workers or their rural work sites were poisoned by radioactive oil waste. Then there’s the sludge from oil operations, typically laced with toxic compounds, that gets dumped into unsafe and often unlined pits. This, too, I saw across the Gulf Coast oil patch during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and of course it’s still taking place today.

InsideClimate News, the Pulitzer Prize-winning news service dedicated to covering the global warming crisis, over the last week has published a new expose on fracking and the still-appalling waste-disposal practices of Big Oil. Here is an excerpt:

NORDHEIM, Texas—School Superintendent Kevin Wilson tugged at his oversized belt buckle and gestured toward a field less than a mile from Nordheim School, where 180 children attend kindergarten through 12th grade.

A commercial waste facility that will receive millions of barrels of toxic sludge from oil and gas production for disposal in enormous open-air pits is taking shape there, and Wilson worries that the ever-present Texas wind will carry traces of dangerous chemicals, including benzene, to the school.

“Many of these students live outside of where they could be exposed,” said Wilson, a contemplative man with a soft Texas accent. “But we are busing them to the school, putting them in the direct path of something that could be harmful to them. It makes you think: Are we doing what’s best for the students?”

Along with Nordheim’s mayor and other angry residents, Wilson is trying to stop the 204-acre facility, but he faces an uphill battle. In Texas, as in most states, air emissions from oil and gas waste are among the least regulated, least monitored and least understood components in the extraction and production cycle. Although the wastewater and sludge can contain the same chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing and other processes—chemicals known to affect human health—little has been done to measure waste emissions or determine their possible impact on nearby residents.

Actions have consequences — and so does inaction. I was there when the initial inaction happened, when activists and some dedicated state environmental officials pleaded unsuccessfully with the EPA to impose meaningful restrictions on oil industry wastes. The truth — which both Big Oil and the regulators with whom they have a cozy relationship will never admit — is that much of the waste that the industry produces is hazardous, or radioactive, and should be shipped to an appropriate, highly regulated landfill.

However, millions of dollars in campaign contributions and lobbying fees made sure that such common-sense rules were never imposed. Toxic disposal is happening more now, thanks to fracking, but the reality is that it happened throughout the 20th Century, and it never stopped. And it won’t stop, until our political leaders begin to take seriously their role as stewards of a safe environment for their constituents.

Read the InsideClimate News special report here:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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