Oil Production waste is pollution generated from traditional oil and natural gas production processes. The waste contains highly toxic radium-based substances commonly referred to as technologically enhanced radioactive material (TERM) or naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM).
TERM, a by-product of oil and gas exploration and production, consists primarily of radium-226 and radium-228. The health hazards associated with radium, a decay product of uranium, have been well documented since the early 1900s in such reporting as the Radium Dial Painters (or Radium Girls) who suffered painful bone conditions, fractures, anemia and in some cases death as a result of their exposure to radium. In the 1950s, scientists discovered that TERM accumulates on the inside of oilfield tubing and other production equipment as radioactive scale and sludge, posing a threat to workers, the general public and the environment.
When a company drills into a rock formation to tap an oil and gas reservoir, there is saltwater trapped inside the rock with the oil. It’s a geological phenomenon that always holds true: Where there is oil and gas there is saltwater. During extraction, oil companies pump the saltwater, or brine, up to the surface with the oil, where the two fluids are separated during production processes. The saltwater, which becomes wastewater, has radioactive material in it. The naturally occurring radium goes from being relatively harmless to being a grave health hazard when it accumulates as a concentrated scale on the inside of oilfield piping or is dumped into open “holding ponds” with the brine, a common industry practice.
Radium-226, the major component of TERM, has a half-life of 1,622 years so the hazard persists over long periods of time. The oil industry would not publicly admit to the presence of TERM in its production processes until 1986 – some 30 years after scientists first observed it on oilfield equipment. Experts believe that TERM, generated by petroleum production and other industrial processes like phosphate mining and fertilizer manufacturing, may be the largest source of “avoidable radiation exposure in the United States.”
Naturally occurring radioactive materials, as its name suggests, exist naturally in trace amounts in the earth’s crust, rocks and soil. Those naturally occurring substances become highly toxic when they are enhanced, or concentrated, during industrial processes, like oil and gas production. Consequently, U.S. oilfields – from Alaska to Florida – are contaminated with highly radioactive material.