One Big Step Closer to a Cleaner – Less Radioactive – Gulf of Mexico


In a court-ordered action custom-made for the “better late than never” file, Louisiana has taken a meaningful step toward protecting the Gulf of Mexico from pollution. At issue is liquid radioactive waste – or so-called “produced waters” – that the oil and gas industry has been dumping directly into the Gulf on a daily basis since the 1950s (see link to my previous post “Chernobyl in the Gulf of Mexico” below).

The news has everyone from clean water advocates to health experts to marine biologists high-fiving across the Gulf Coast, as my home state of Louisiana at long last confronts an insidious source of pollution that poses persistent environmental and human health risks.

Here are the specifics. The Louisiana State Court of Appeal (First Circuit) has ordered the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) to test and monitor the environmental impact of “produced waters” – a byproduct of traditional oil and gas production – on the Gulf of Mexico. While that might seem like a no-brainer to most of you (at least those of you assumed to be of sound mind), it took a lawsuit to force the regulatory action.

The suit filed by the nonprofit Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), a client of mine, charges that the LDEQ did not require rig owners to test for radioactive material in their produced-water discharge or generate an independent environmental impact statement (EIS) to assess the risk inherent in those types of discharges. The Court of Appeal decision states that DEQ failed to protect the public interest based on a preponderance of evidence that produced waters are indeed dangerous. The Court has now ordered the Department of Environmental Quality to act.

This is a major legal victory for LEAN and other clean water advocates in Louisiana – a state known for its pro-industry proclivities.

So what’s so dangerous about produced waters? Well, for starters, it’s radioactive.

Naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM), primarily composed of radium-226 and radium-228, is a known byproduct of normal oil production processes. NORM is extracted from the earth along with oil and gas, and is separated from the fossil fuels during the production process. Once the NORM-contaminated fluid is separated, it is pumped directly back into the ocean as produced waters.

Radium-226 has a half-life of 1,600 years so the damage from the radioactive material in produced waters will likely be acute and long-lasting. In fact, a “secret industry study” from the American Petroleum Institute (API) written in 1990 and exposed in an exclusive New York Times story earlier this year, states that consuming seafood from the Gulf of Mexico poses “potentially significant risks” of cancer to humans due to the radium levels in “produced water” discharges.

So the first part of the problem is that produced water is dangerous. The second part of the problem is there’s a lot of it, tons of it. The oil and gas industry dumps hundreds of millions of barrels of produced waters into the Gulf of Mexico every year. The volume is truly stunning, and there’s no sign of any ebb in that waste stream. For every barrel of oil produced, approximately eight or nine barrels of produced waters are generated. That adds up quickly, particularly when the Gulf produced 1.6 million barrels of oil per day in 2010. Do the math. It’s scary.

For decades, the oil and gas industry has simply dumped its produced waters directly back into the Gulf of Mexico – endangering the environment and human health. But thanks to this landmark Court decision, those days may soon be over.

The other piece of this story is more macro in nature. Could Louisiana – a state that has historically coddled and pampered the oil industry – be tightening its lax regulatory mindset? After all, this is the second enviro-friendly decision to come out of Louisiana in the past three weeks. That amounts to a royal flush for environmentalists in an oil-producing state. The first setback for the industry came in late May when our state legislature defeated a bill that would have shielded oil and gas companies from liability in the cleanup of lands contaminated by years of damaging oil production processes (see link to my previous post on “legacy lawsuits” below).

Only time will tell if this double-shot of good news signals a real change in Louisiana’s regulatory disposition – but I must say, just having the opportunity to ponder the possibility is a milestone.

Read the full Court decision here: 2010 CA 1640 Decision Appeal

Here’s the link to LEAN’s website:

Read my previous post “Chernobyl in the Gulf of Mexico”:

Read my post on another victory over Big Oil:

A report from radiation expert Dr. Chris Busby on the release of radioactive material into the Gulf is here:

Read a white paper on produced waters here:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved

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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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