Update: Expert says Louisiana officials “in denial” over radium risk at sinkhole


A veteran radiation expert says Louisiana environmental officials are “in denial” over the hazard posed by elevated radium levels discovered in the slurry liquids of the massive sinkhole that has forced out residents of the rural town of Bayou Corne.

Stanley Waligora — a New Mexico-based radiation protection consultant and leading authority on the health risks of naturally occurring radioactive material, or NORM — confirmed earlier reports that radium levels at the site about 70 miles west of New Orleans are not within limits but roughly 15 times higher than the acceptable level set by the state.

Waligora said officials with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality need to launch immediate additional testing to ensure that the hazardous radium is not leaking into nearby groundwater and posing a threat to human health as well as livestock.

The consultant’s recommendations come two days after this blog first reported that analysis of DEQ test results from Bayou Corne — posted online earlier this week by the Louisiana Environmental Action Network — revealed not only elevated radium levels but also airborne chemicals associated with highly volatile butane, stored in a cavern near the sinkhole.

The sinkhole — now more than a football field across, filled with liquid slurry — is blamed on the failure of a salt cavern near Bayou Corne that had been operated by Texas Brine Co. Although company officials informed the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources in early 2011 of significant problems at the cavern, local residents and authorities were not told of the risk even after they began complaining this summer of shaking homes and noxious orders.

I sought an analysis of the recent DEQ test results from Waligora, who since a stint as a nuclear weapons officer in the U.S. military has been teaching, consulting and testifying as an expert witness in radiation litigation for more than 45 years. 

He expressed concern that the state reported its findings of radium- 226 and radium-228 as below acceptable levels, when in fact the results were 15 times higher than the state’s own standard for soil contamination. “Well, once again the Louisiana DEQ is in denial because they don’t know what to do about the radioactive contamination in the Bayou Corne subsidence,” Waligora wrote.

He added these findings:

 There are immediate radiation dose concerns. 

The release could reach the usable aquifer and contaminate drinking water along with livestock and irrigated crops.  The DEQ must sample ground water to assess any transport. 

Airborne particulate might become entrained and cause contamination to be inhaled by the public.  DEQ must collect air samples to assess the airborne radioactive particulate. 

Radon gas emanating from the radium could be inhaled by members of the public.  DEQ needs to monitor airborne radon. 

A long range plan must be developed for remedial action.  Funding should be provided by the oil companies that used the cavern for disposal. 

Waligora said in his report that he’s concerned about the DEQ’s understating of the risks in Bayou Corne because of what he’s witnessed in other cases handled by the troubled agency:

This is reminiscent of the illegal waste disposal that was discovered several years ago at St. Gabriel.  The community complained about illegal disposal of radioactive waste.  DEQ sent a team to investigate who determined that there was no problem.  Complaints continued and  a second DEQ team investigated and again said that there was no problem.  Finally, a legal action attracted the EPA who found widespread contamination.  The responsible party had no worth so the site was cleaned up with Superfund support.  The cleanup took over one year and cost over $1million.  Quite a bit for “no problem.”

Indeed. As regular readers know, I joined earlier this year with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in calling for the EPA to step in and assume responsibility from DEQ because we felt the agency was overwhelmed and in the back pocket of the businesses it’s supposed to be regulating. In Bayou Corne, we are witnessing our worst nightmares coming true. It’s time for the EPA and other outside authorities to step and make sure that proper testing is done and that emergency measures are carried out. There’s no excuse for allowing this new Louisiana catastrophe to get any worse.

To read my post from earlier this week about radium testing at Bayou Corne, please go to: https://www.stuarthsmith.com/threat-to-bayou-corne-grows-as-tests-show-elevated-levels-of-radium-butane-traces-in-and-near-sinkhole

My earlier post calling for the EPA to take over the Louisiana DEQ’s duties can be found here:  https://www.stuarthsmith.com/louisiana-isnt-protecting-its-residents-from-hazardous-chemical-spills-so-its-time-for-feds-to-step-in

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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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