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A photo of the book jacket with an industrial facility lit up with a Christmas nativity scene in front, with a black background with the title of the book: "Petroleum-238," and the sentence, "They've known for 110 years but haven't done a thing to stop it. It's the secret of the century," and "Justin Noblel"

Cover design by Sabrina Bedford, cover photo by Julie Dermansky

Waste from the oil and gas industry plays a central role in science journalist Justin Nobel‘s new book Petroleum-238: Big Oil’s Dangerous Secret and the Grassroots Fight to Stop It.

Nobel spent seven years researching and reporting the book, which looks at the dangers of radioactivity in the industry through history, industry documents, and interviews with workers and people working on changing practices that potentially put public health at risk.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple recently spoke with Nobel about the book.

Listen to the interview:

Kara Holsopple: How radioactive is the Marcellus shale formation, where gas is fracked in Pennsylvania?

Justin Nobel: The Marcellus formation is the most radioactive formation in the United States. If you look at the metric of radium, the amount of radium, which is a radioactive metal in brine. Brine is the really salty liquid that surges to the surface at wells across the country.

Profile photo of a man in a colorful shirt.

Photo of Justin Nobel by Karen LeBlanc

So it’s a really good question, but you’ve got to figure out, well, what are we defining radioactivity by? And there are a lot of ways to do that. But if you look at radium in brine, which is often how science looks at oilfields, the radioactivity levels in the Marcellus are higher than any other formation across the United States.

To give you some numbers, because the numbers are interesting, EPA has a safe drinking water limit for radium. It’s five pico carries per liter. At 60 pico carries per liter, EPA defines a liquid waste stream as radioactive, and the Marcellus, as found by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, averages 9330 and can be as high as 20,500. That’s significantly higher than a lot of the other formations. 

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Kara Holsopple: If it’s so radioactive, why is the waste from the oil and gas industry not classified as hazardous waste?  

Justin Nobel: This is an amazing question, and it takes us down one of the primary rabbit holes of the book. In the late 1970s, the U.S. was deciding what to do with its industrial waste problem. Right here in the Northeast and Midwest, there were some really significant issues. Rivers were catching fire. Great Lakes were being contaminated with industrial waste. So there was congressional impetus to really solve this problem.

The regulation that came about was called the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. It was a well-meaning attempt to deal with the nation’s industrial waste issue. The primary question was, what waste is going to be considered hazardous, and what waste is going to be considered non-hazardous?

Hazardous waste has to go through a lot more regulations and, therefore a lot more costs in terms of transport, ultimate place of disposal. So there was a major incentive at that point for industry to ensure their waste was labeled non-hazardous. And that’s exactly what the oil and gas industry did and the book lays out some really interesting people who took part in that effort more than 40 years ago.  

Kara Holsopple: By far from your reporting in this book, workers in the oil and gas industry are most impacted. What are some of the jobs and ways workers are potentially exposed to radiation? 

Justin Nobel: Let’s start with the brine. Three billion gallons a day come to the surface at the oil and gas wells across the US. That’s an extraordinary waste stream that the industry has to deal with. So brine has this radium radioactive metal, and there are other radioactive elements in it as well. Brine has a lot of other suspended solid particles in it. They’ll settle out at the bottom of a brine tank or a truck carrying brine.

That sludge has an even more significant radioactive signature than the brine, so one of the primary areas of concern for workers is that sludge. It’s too radioactive to be taken to a local landfill. What happens is a frightening, and almost science fiction kind of process called down blending.

Human workers will mix that radioactive sludge with other nonradioactive items, like lime or even be ground-up corncobs, in an effort to lower the radioactive signature. Then the industry can save again because if it’s too radioactive, they’ll have to take it to a legitimate low-level radioactive disposal site out West.

The problem is those workers are not informed. The reporting that I’ve done even lays out that in some instances, these workers are being drawn from prison, they’re desperate for work, they’re often addicted to drugs, and they’re being put to this job of shoveling and scooping around radioactive oilfield sludge without any knowledge or appropriate protection against it.  

Kara Holsopple:  The people who drive this material, and who deal with the material at injection wells and waste facilities, are also at risk, right?

Justin Nobel: The workers most at risk would be the worker who has to go into that brine truck. It’s done by crawling into the back. There’s something called the clamshell, and you literally open it up and someone’s going to have to go in there and shovel that sludge out. That worker is much more at risk than the worker driving the truck when it comes to radioactive exposure, 

Another big issue with radioactivity is dust. Because the industry is aware that a lot of communities are resisting injection wells, they’re trying to move towards the treatment of produced water. Treatment means you’re going to remove all the gunk from the produced water, maybe use it the water to frack new wells, maybe even make a product out of the salt. But in doing that, you’re inherently concentrating some of the most concerning elements in the brine.

Some of the sites that I visited where treatment and produced water was attempted were really just truly frightening places. I’ll give one example. A site in northern West Virginia was called Fairmont Brine. It’s up on a hill, right above the Monongahela, which later flows through Downtown Pittsburgh. At this facility, they’re trying to treat produced water. They got an award for innovation. It was a southwest Pennsylvania area firm, and what is left there now is just an absolute radioactive mess.

Unfortunately, in that particular area, the community and local kids began to hang out there. When I visited with a former Department of Energy scientists, we found that parts of the site were more contaminated with radioactivity than 99 percent of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Kara Holsopple: How is the health of the workers you talked to been impacted?

Justin Nobel: There are people who have strange and unexplainable things happening to their bodies: teeth falling out, joint pain, and strange rashes. Of course, these things could potentially be explained by other things. But there also are people dying at the site I just mentioned, Fairmont Brine. Two of the workers died from cancer, one from stomach cancer, and one from brain cancer.

And after speaking with a worker who is still alive, though sick, I learned the nature of that environment was just so incredibly sloppy. The sludge was eating away their boots. The boots get some of the most direct action with material with the sludge. But there was also a lot of dust in the air. This is very worrisome. They had no PPE, and no masks for breathing in dust. 

One thing I’m doing now is I’ve connected with some researchers. There’s a researcher at Pitt, Daniel Bane, and I connected him with one of the workers from this facility. What we can do now, and we’re in the process of doing this, is to go through and construct a dose model: look at how much radioactivity they were exposed to and what their workday was like. Did they eat lunch in the workspace? Yes, they did. They had barbecue cookouts there.

The other important thing is, we know the levels because we had access to that site. It just was open in the wind. So it’s a rare instance when we have access to the workers, we have access to the levels of the material they’re dealing with, and we can put together a picture of what they were exposed to.

When we do that, we can throw some science at this. Their coworkers died of cancer. Can we attribute these cancers to radioactivity based on their exposures? Those would be really important studies when they start to come out. 

Kara Holsopple: If the oil and gas industry knows that their waste is so radioactive in some cases that it can’t be sent to a local landfill, isn’t it being regulated in some way? 

Justin Nobel: There are ways. So, for example, the hazardous waste laws would be a way. But as we discussed, the industry has been granted an exemption. Another way to check would be to actually look in the bottom of the brine trucks.

There are radioactivity rules separate from the hazardous waste rule. So if a truck has enough radioactivity, and there are various ways to check it, it would need a radioactivity placard. Again here the reporting shows the Department of Transportation is not checking.

You and I, as journalists, and the profession work because you put in the extra effort, and the regulators are not doing that. They’re not doing the things that would lead them to the reveals. When they brush up against that, they shy away and say, ‘well, I’m just not going to look there.’ It takes someone of courage to find it out. 

Kara Holsopple: In the final chapter of the book you profile a regulator who did that.

Justin Nobel: There is a wonderful regulator in the book, a former Louisiana regulator, the former head of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, Doctor Paul Templet. He heard about this issue. He sent teams of investigators out to examine it. They looked at oysters, for example. They found that where produced water, brine was being discharged into estuarine environments, radium was accumulating in oysters.

They found the oil industry was giving their contaminated pipes, which have a really thin but dangerous layer of radioactive shell, to schools to build playgrounds. After learning this Dr. Templet instructed his department to actually write rules on this. So this, I think, is an example that when a regulator opens their eyes and decides to look and do science and then follow it, things can be done. 

Justin Nobel is a science writer, and the author of the new book, Petroleum-238: Big Oil’s Dangerous Secret and the Grassroots Fight to Stop It. His work has been featured in Best American Science and Nature Writing and Best American Travel Writing. His 2020 Rolling Stone article, “America’s Radioactive Secret,” won an award for longform writing from the National Association of Science Writers, and inspired his new book.