Big Oil still poisoning Louisiana with radiation


Most of us are very familiar with the famed quote from the 20th Century philosopher George Santayana, that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” For me, I think of those words when I think about oil production and radioactive waste — an environmental problem that America did not fix in our very recent past, and one that we are now repeating in our new national oil boom.

It was little more than two decades ago that I received my baptism under fire as a young environmental lawyer, and the core of my early practice was going after oil companies that had left a trail of pollution across the Deep South — by poisoning workers who cleaned our oil-production pipe with unsafe levels of radiation, or even donating this “hot” pipe for playground fences, or by dumping millions of gallons of radioactive water in unlined pits. We won settlements or jury verdicts against the world’s oil giants — Chevron, Shell, ExxonMobil — but then the politicians decided it was easier and more profitable to do nothing. The federal government refused to regulate oil-field wastes as hazardous, and most state legislatures were too beholden to the oil lobby to act. The problem didn’t go away, but after a few front-page stories the media also lost interest in radioactive oil waste.

But now, with oil production in the United States at the highest level in decades, citizens are paying attention again, and some seemed shocked to learn that oil production also creates massive quantities of waste that is radioactive. Now, this issue may be returning to the front burner, and all I can say is that it’s about time. Here are three separate stories, both from Louisiana, that received attention this week — the first is out of Plaquemines Parish near New Orleans:

The Louisiana parish of Plaquemines is taking on a group of oil and gas giants including BP and Chevron for allegedly dumping toxic waste — some of it radioactive — from their drilling operations into its coastal waters, according to a lawsuit removed to federal court on Thursday.

Plaquemines Parish is claiming the companies violated the Louisiana State and Local Coastal Resources Management Act of 1978 by discharging oil field waste directly into the water “without limitation.” Worse, the companies allegedly failed to clear, revegetate, detoxify or restore any of the areas they polluted, as required by state law. The oil and gas companies’ pollution, along with their alleged failure to adequately maintain their oilfields, has caused significant coastal erosion and contaminated groundwater, the lawsuit said.

Here’s more detail about the radiation:

Plaquemines’ suit says BP and Chevron should have known that the oilfield wastes, referred to as “brine,” contained “unacceptable and inherently dangerous” levels of radioactive materials called Radium 226 and Radium 228. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, small amounts of Radium 226 were once used as an additive in toothpaste, hair creams, and even food items due to supposed beneficial health properties. Those products soon “fell out of vogue,” however, after it was discovered that the health effects were exactly the opposite of beneficial.

Long-term exposure to radium also increases the risk of developing several diseases, including lymphoma, bone cancer, leukemia and aplastic anemia, according to the EPA.

At the same time, new evidence of radiation mishandling is also surfacing at the sinkhole that has ravaged the small Louisiana town of Bayou Corne:

State officials are investigating how Texas Brine Co. LLC handled naturally occurring radioactive material in Assumption Parish — where a large sinkhole was found Aug. 3 — and whether it was illegally disposed of inside the Napoleonville Dome in the mid-1990s.

The state Department of Environmental Quality confirmed last week that a 1979 state statute prohibited disposal of naturally occurring radioactive material in large underground salt deposits like the Napoleonville Dome until legislative changes in 1999 made such disposal legal.

Which brings us to the most appalling part — despite Louisiana’s sordid history when it comes to the disposing of radioactive oil-and-gas waste, the state may soon see such dumping increased on a massive scale:

PITTSBURGH — The U.S. Coast Guard wants to allow barges filled with fracking wastewater to ply the nation’s rivers on their way toward disposal in Louisiana and other places. Many environmentalists are horrified, but industry groups say barge transport has its advantages.

Now, the wastewater is usually disposed of by truck or rail, which poses more risk for accidents than shipping by barge, according to a government report. And one barge can carry about the same amount of waste as 100 exhaust-spewing trucks.

Other studies have shown that this fracking waste is heavily dosed with radioactivity. This is not material that we want shipped on giant barges down the Mississippi or other key waterways, where it could spill, nor is this material that we want disposed of under the soil in Louisiana. This week I received an email from retired Gen. Russel Honore, who led the recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina and is now organizing a so-called “Green Army” with the praiseworthy goal of revolutionizing environmental protection here in his home state. Noting that Louisiana seems powerless from stopping other states from dumping here, Honore wrote:

We cannot continue to leave our beautiful state in the hands of the polluters… every fisherman and hunter out their knows how fragile our eco system is… every housewife, farmer, nurse and teacher has witnessed the wrath that man has caused to our coast, our wetlands and our health.

We need oil production and chemical plants here, but we need them to act responsibly… to be caring citizens… what we do not need is for any company to put profits before our safety or before our health.

There’s not much I can add to that, other than “amen.” Because our political leaders responded so meekly to the first reports of radioactive oil waste in the 1980s and ’90s, they are trying to get away with environmental murder once again. Hopefully this time, citizen awareness will help to make it stop. Our history of radioactive poisoning is one part of our recent past that Louisiana should not be condemned to keep repeating

To learn more about Plaquemines Parish’s lawsuit against the major oil companies, check out:

Read more about the radiation probe in Bayou Corne at:

Check out more information about the shipping of radioactive fracking waste to Louisiana at:

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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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