New Threat to Gulf residents: Radioactive wastewater from natural gas industry dumped off Louisiana coast

Secret industry study cites “significant risks” of cancer for people who regularly eat fish from Gulf waters.  By Stuart Smith and Mary Lee Orr. More details at:

More bad news for Gulf Coast residents: A “confidential study” by the American Petroleum Institute concludes that radium in drilling wastewater dumped off the coast of Louisiana poses “potentially significant risks” of cancer for people who regularly eat fish from those waters.

“This is another example of the oil and gas industry endangering the health of millions of Gulf Coast residents,” said Stuart H. Smith, a New Orleans environmental attorney who has been suing oil and gas companies for radiation-pollution damages for two decades. “The industry has been reckless with its radioactive wastewater for years – contaminating food sources, freshwater aquifers and private property with its ill-conceived extraction processes.”

At the center of the wastewater issue is “hydrofracking,” known in the business as simply “fracking.” In a recent article in The New York Times that broke the confidential industry study, reporter Ian Urbina 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.”

Mr. Smith pioneered the field of “radioactive oilfield waste” litigation. As Urbina notes, by-products of oil and gas exploration, extraction and production are radioactive, highly toxic and dangerous to human health. These substances – referred to as Technologically Enhanced Radioactive Materials (TERM) or Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) – exist naturally in trace amounts. However, when these materials are enhanced or concentrated through industrial processes, they become some of the most dangerous substances known to man. In 1992, Mr. Smith was the first attorney to take an oil company to trial for damages caused from TERM. He is best known for his role as lead attorney in an oilfield radiation case that resulted in a $1.05 billion verdict against ExxonMobil for contaminating land in Harvey, Louisiana, and attempting to cover it up.

The lack of oversight documented by Mr. Urbina is nothing short of breathtaking. According to the NYT 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."
Just how bad is the situation? 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.

“Fracking is fast-becoming a major threat to human health wherever natural gas wells are in proximity to sources of drinking water and food,” said Smith. “This is radioactive water that the public is unwittingly drinking in these areas.”

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."          
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] 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.

For more info:

Contact: Stuart Smith (504) 596-9300 or Mary Lee Orr (225) 588-5059

Link to this white paper on produced waters by LEAN (Louisiana Environmental Action Network):