New Threat to the Gulf: Radioactive Wastewater Dumped Off Louisiana Coast


The New York Times is reporting that a 1990 “confidential study” by the American Petroleum Institute concluded that radium in drilling wastewater dumped off the Louisiana coast posed “potentially significant risks” of cancer for people who regularly eat fish from those waters.

The secret industry study focused on the Gulf itself, where the radioactive waste would be much more diluted than in rivers.

It’s a damning report because radioactive wastewater doesn’t usually enter humans through the skin but rather from ingestion – like inhaling contaminated material or drinking contaminated water or eating food grown in contaminated areas. If it gets into your body from eating, drinking or breathing – the radiation can cause cancer and other diseases, according to a wealth of research.

The explosive Louisiana revelation comes in a NYT story by reporter Ian Urbina that is the first installment of a much-anticipated, detailed and incriminating series – an indictment, really – of both the nation’s natural gas industry and the helpless regulators who are allowing it to endanger the health of millions of Americans.

Even for those of us who have been warning about this situation for years (I’ve been suing oil companies for radiation-related damages for decades) the NYT report is shocking if only for documenting the enormous scope of this growing national crisis.

At the center of the wastewater issue is “hydrofracking,” known in the business as simply “fracking.” The Times explains that when fracked, “…a well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself.”

The NYT series comes as the issue is featured at this weekend’s Academy Awards, where one of the nominees for “Best Documentary” shines some much-needed light on the process of fracking – its consequences and repercussions. “GasLand” is not considered a favorite in its category, but many celebrities are expected to wear blue “water drop” pins to help draw attention to this increasingly important issue.

The lack of oversight documented by Mr. Urbina is nothing short of breathtaking. According to the article:

…under federal law, testing for radioactivity in drinking water is required only at drinking-water plants. But federal and state regulators have given nearly all drinking-water intake facilities in Pennsylvania permission to test only once every six or nine years… the Times reviewed data from more than 65 intake plants downstream from some of the busiest drilling regions in the state. Not one has tested for radioactivity since 2008, and most have not tested since at least 2005, before most of the drilling waste was being produced.

Nobody has tested since 2008? It’s an impressive show of restraint that the Times didn’t report that fact in all bold caps.

Just how bad is the situation? The Times says that its investigation shows that “…in 2009 and 2010, public sewage treatment plants directly upstream from some of these drinking-water intake facilities accepted wastewater that contained radioactivity levels as high as 2,122 times the drinking-water standard. But most sewage plants are not required to monitor for radioactive elements in the water they discharge. So there is virtually no data on such contaminants as water leaves these plants.”

In fact, says the Times, “…federal and state regulators are allowing most sewage treatment plants that accept drilling waste not to test for radioactivity. And most drinking-water intake plants downstream from those sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania, with the blessing of regulators, have not tested for radioactivity since before 2006, even though the drilling boom began in 2008…in other words, there is no way of guaranteeing that the drinking water taken in by all these plants is safe.”

The numbers in Urbina’s report are staggering: 493,000 active natural-gas wells in the United States in 2009, almost double the number in 1990. Around 90 percent have used hydrofracking to get more gas flowing, according to the drilling industry. In Texas alone, there are 93,000 natural-gas wells, up from around 58,000 a dozen years ago, drilling companies were issued roughly 3,300 gas-well permits in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region last year, up from just 117 in 2007.

The Times also cites alarming statistics tied to contaminated wells:

…of 179 wells producing wastewater with high levels of radiation, at least 116 reported levels of radium or other radioactive materials 100 times as high as the levels set by federal drinking-water standards. At least 15 wells produced wastewater carrying more than 1,000 times the amount of radioactive elements considered acceptable.

How bad? The NYT interactive online section documents 42 wells where radium exceeds drinking water levels, in Pennsylvania alone.

As for spills, national regulation of the gas industry makes the underachievers regulating deepwater drilling seem like Eliot Ness.

Reports the Times:

Gas producers are generally left to police themselves when it comes to spills. In Pennsylvania, regulators do not perform unannounced inspections to check for signs of spills. Gas producers report their own spills, write their own spill response plans and lead their own cleanup efforts…a review of response plans for drilling projects at four Pennsylvania sites where there have been accidents in the past year found that these state-approved plans often appear to be in violation of the law [and]…at one well site where several spills occurred within a week, including one that flowed into a creek, the well’s operator filed a revised spill plan saying there was little chance that waste would ever enter a waterway.

Even by BP standards, where the response “plan” quoted long-dead experts and included animals not native to the Gulf, that’s a pretty outlandish system.

Along with documenting a true outrage, the landmark Times story actually places the BP spill into an alarming context of lax regulation and a powerful energy extraction industry left to endanger the public while earning obscene profits. It’s hard to believe it won’t bring swift and decisive legislative action, but then it’s hard to believe that, approaching one year after the BP spill, Congress has not passed a single reform.

The story is part of a series called “Drilling Down” that examines the natural gas industry. If this is the opening salvo, we’ll no doubt be shocked at how “down” things really are.

The NYT story is here:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2010 – All Rights Reserved

Add comment

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

Follow Us

© Stuart H Smith, LLC
Share This