Across the Ohio Valley, natural gas drilling waste is trucked from the well pad to disposal sites. The waste contains naturally occurring radioactive elements.
Freelance science journalist Justin Nobel spent nearly two years reporting on this topic. He interviewed hundreds of scientists, environmentalists, state regulators and industry workers and uncovered never-before-released early reports from the oil and gas industry that highlight the radioactivity problem and its risks to workers and the public.
Energy and Environment Reporter Brittany Patterson spoke with Nobel via Skype about his investigation titled “America’s Radioactive Secret” that was published last month in Rolling Stone.
***Editor's Note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
Patterson: You use a character, a pseudonym of a character, named Peter. Tell us where we meet him and tell us a little bit about him and his concerns.
Nobel: Peter does a job that has become quite common across northern West Virginia, southwestern Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, the heart of the Marcellus and also Utica shale areas, and that job is the job of brine hauler, or driving a truck that looks a bit like a septic truck, but is actually filled with this oil and gas waste product. The industry often refers to this product as brine, or produced water, but what my reporting revealed is that this is very misleading. Brine, especially in the Marcellus, can have a very complicated mix of different chemicals and there's a lot of toxic heavy metals. There's what's known as volatile organics; these are known human carcinogens like benzene, and then there's also radioactive elements such as radium. Drivers like Peter are told often that they're hauling water or that they're hauling saltwater, and yet they're not. They're hauling this really complicated brew of chemicals that also has radioactivity in it.
Patterson: What is the federal and state oversight of this activity?
Nobel: So, oil and gas waste has a stunning exemption that goes back to the late 1970s. The United States at that time knew there's a lot of industry and that industry regularly produces hazardous waste, and under a law called the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the United States determined that it's going to appropriately label waste that is hazardous as hazardous. That means that waste can only go in certain types of trucks that are designed to carry hazardous waste. It can only go on certain routes that are appropriate for hazardous waste to be hauled on. Drivers will have to be appropriately trained, and the hazardous waste will have to end up in landfills that are appropriately designed to hold hazardous waste.
And it was a good way, a cradle to grave way, of dealing with hazardous waste. Except oil and gas waste, all of these different waste streams produced at an oil and gas well, such as brine, such as drill cuttings, such as other materials like scales and sludges, these wastes all received an exemption. And what's just so striking is that the EPA actually looked at that exemption in 1988, and they determined that even though there are hazardous materials in oil and gas waste, there's uranium, there's toxic heavy metals, to label that waste as hazardous would cause a severe economic burden on the industry. There literally would not be enough landfills to deal with it. It would overwhelm regulators and so EPA sticks with this determination of non-hazardous and everything we see happening today — in regards to these trucks in the Marcellus, why are they not labeled, why are these drivers not being told what's in them — it goes back to that exemption.
Patterson: One of the really striking things about your story and the reporting you've done on this topic is how deep you've gone. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the documents and research that you found and how that impacts workers' health?
Nobel: So in my reporting, I would be talking to workers working in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, talking to community members, and hearing things that were quite concerning when it came to how this material was being handled and just what the radioactive content might be. And there is the question of well, ‘How concerning? What really are the risks? And just how worried should I be?’ And what helped answer that question was finding documents of the industry that conveyed that they had knowledge about this going back decades. And so some of the industry's most prominent organizations and publications have actually written about this topic. And that's significant because right now the industry still is actually denying that there's a serious problem. And yet when you look 30 and 40 years ago, the industry themselves wrote about this problem. And I found a set of Louisiana legal cases only recently settled in 2016 that showed that oil and gas worker cancers had been linked indisputably to radioactivity exposure received on the job. That was just such a moment of alarm for me because it confirmed that if this job, and these different types of jobs, are done for long enough, a worker actually can get cancer and that cancer can kill them. So, in Louisiana workers got different types of lymphomas, different types of leukemias, colon cancer, liver cancer, kidney cancer.
Patterson: So we have the EPA that is sort of declining to regulate the disposal of this type of hazardous waste. And we have thousands of workers in this region that are working in this industry hauling brine, but also involved in other parts of natural gas drilling. And it's an industry that's growing. What does this mean for the people who work in this industry, for those oil and gas workers?
Nobel: There needs to be a massive health analysis done immediately. And what's so worrisome about the Louisiana cases is we know the signature of the brine in Louisiana. The radium levels are significantly less than they are in the Marcellus, about eight to nine times less. So no one has looked at what it means for workers in the Marcellus to be handling different bines, scales, sludges, to be handling this oil and gas waste for a prolonged period of time. What's just been so striking is that workers continue to reach out to me, and this is a difficult thing for them to do, but they're not getting help from the regulatory agencies. They're not getting help from their employer, certainly. And suddenly they've read this article which has information that connects to things that they've been seen and wondering about. And so, with each week, really since the story's been published, more people have been reaching out. And many of them are workers and they help fill in a picture that's already forming and the picture is really a concerning one.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting reached out to the trade group, the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association. In a statement, executive director Anne Blankenship said the industry is highly-regulated and does not expose workers or the public to high levels of radiation. She said her association disagrees with the Rolling Stone article, calling it “purposefully misleading, biased and exaggerated.”