Oil and Gas Wastes are Radioactive! Why Doesn’t the EPA Care?

Highlighting maps created in collaboration with the Western Organization of Research Councils of radioactive oil and gas exploration and production wastes.

By Kyle Ferrar, MPH, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Scott Skokos, Regional Organizer, Western Organization of Research Councils

The FracTracker Alliance has been working with the Western Organization of Resources Councils (WORC) to map out exactly where the radioactive oil and wastes are being dumped, stored, and injected into the ground for disposal. This work follows up on WORC’s comprehensive No Time to Waste report. In this blog report, we summarize some of the many issues that comprise the hazardous risks resulting from the current federal policy that fails to regulate this massive waste stream. Of the six states mapped in this assessment, North Dakota has finalized weak rules managing oil and gas waste (Note: North Dakota’s rules are in litigation and not being enforced), and Montana is initiating a rule-making process to manage the waste. All states need to consider this waste stream to address the issue since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and federal government refuses to.

According to Nadia Stenizor of Earthworks, when it comes to unconventional oil and gas waste streams, “Nobody can say how much of any type of waste is being produced, what it is, and where it’s ending up.” The Earthworks report, Wasting Away, explains that the EPA intentionally exempts oil and gas exploration and production wastes from the federal regulations known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) despite concluding that such wastes “contain a wide variety of hazardous constituents.” As a result of this dismissal of accountability, there is very little waste tracking and reporting of data. Regardless, we at FracTracker have compiled, cleaned and mapped what little data is available.

State-specific maps have been created for Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming. To see the maps, select the link to the state of interest below!

Sources of Radioactivity

When we hear “radioactive waste” associated with the energy industry, nuclear power stations and fission reactors are usually what comes to mind. But, as the EPA explains, fracking has transformed the nature of the oil and gas waste stream. Components of waste stream are different from conventional oil and gas exploration and production wastes. In general the waste stream has additional hazardous components and that transformation includes increased radioactivity. Fracking has allowed for more intrusive drilling, penetrating deep sedimentary formations using millions of gallons of fluid. Drilling deeper produces more drill cuttings, and hydraulic fracking introduces millions more gallons of fluid that are ultimately contaminated and require disposal. While industry may contend that fracking fluid is mostly water – as we know from basic chemistry, water is the universal solvent.

The formations targeted for unconventional development are mostly ancient sea-beds still filled with salty “brines” known as “formation waters.” In addition, the hazardous chemicals in the fracking fluid pumped into the wells for fracking, these unconventional formations contain larger amounts of heavy metals, carcinogens and other toxics. This also includes radioisotopes such as uranium, thorium, radium, potassium-40, lead-210, and polonium-210 than the conventional formations that have supplied the majority of oil and gas prior to the shale boom. A variety of waste products make up the waste stream of oil and gas development, and each is enhanced with naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM). This waste stream must be treated and disposed of properly, and all the oil and gas equipment, such as production equipment, processing equipment, produced water handling equipment, and waste management equipment also need to be considered as sources of radioactive exposure. Figure 1 provides a summary of waste production that results from fracking and the options for disposal. Three articles of the waste stream particularly enhanced with naturally occurring radioactive materials by the technological process of fracking include scales, produced waters, and sludges.

Figure 1. Breakdown of the radioactive oil and gas waste life-cycle

oil and gas waste chart

Scales

The fracking fluid mixes with “formation waters,” dissolving metals, radioisotopes and other inorganic compounds. Additionally, the fracking liquids are often supplemented with strong acids to reduce “scaling” from precipitate build up. Regardless, each oil well generates approximately 100 tons of radioactive scale annually and as each oil and gas reservoir drained, the amount of scale increases. The EPA reports that lead-210 and polonium-210 are commonly found in scales along with their decay product radon at concentrations estimated to be anywhere from 480 picocuries per gram (pCi/g) to 400,000 pCi/g). Scale can be disposed of as a solid waste, or dissolved using “scale inhibitors”. These radioactive elements then end up in the liquid waste portion, known as produced waters.

Produced Waters

In California, strong acids are even used to further dissolve formations to stimulate additional oil production. Acidic liquids are able to dissolve more inorganic elements and compounds such as radioisotopes. While uranium and thorium are not soluble in water, their radioactive decay products such as radium dissolve in the brines. The brines return to the surface as “produced water.” As the oil and gas in the formation are removed, much of what is pumped to the surface is formation water. Consequently, declining oil and gas fields generate more produced water. The ratio of produced water to oil in conventional well was approximately 10 barrels of produced water per barrel of oil. According to the American Petroleum Institute (API), more than 18 billion barrels of waste fluids from oil and gas production are generated annually in the United States. There are several options for the liquid waste stream that include certain waste treatment facilities or the cheaper option of reinjection for “enhancement” of production, or injection for disposal. Before disposal of the liquid portion, all the solids in the solution are removed, resulting in a “sludge.”

Sludges

The EPA reports that just conventional oil production process produce 230,000 MT or five million ft3 (141 cubic meters) of TENORM sludge each year. Unconventional processes produce much more sludge waste than conventional processes. The average concentration of radium in sludges is estimated to be 75 pCi/g, while the concentration of lead-210 can be over 27,000 pCi/g. Sludges present a high risk to the environment and a higher risk of exposure for people and other receptors in those environments because they are typically very water soluble.

Federal Exemptions

According to the EPA, “because the extraction process concentrates the naturally occurring radionuclides and exposes them to the surface environment and human contact, these wastes are classified as Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (TENORM).” Despite the conclusions that oil and gas TENORM pose a risk to the environment and humans, the EPA exempts oil and gas exploration and production wastes from the definition of hazardous under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) law. In fact, most wastes from all of the U.S. fossil fuel energy industry, from coal-burning to natural gas, are exempt from the disposal standards of hazardous waste that would otherwise be required. The Center for Public Integrity calls the radioactive waste stream “orphan waste” because no single government agency is fully managing it.

Fortunately, the EPA has acknowledged that federal regulations are currently inadequate. But this is nothing new. An EPA report from the 1980’s reported as much, and gave explicit recommendations to address the issue. For 30 years nothing happened! Then in August, 2015, a coalition of environmental groups (including the Environmental Integrity Project, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthworks, Responsible Drilling Alliance, West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice) filed a lawsuit against the EPA, and has since reached a settlement. Just last month (January 10, 2017) the EPA agreed to review federal regulations of oil and gas waste, a process they were meant to do every 3 years for the last 30 years. The EPA has until March 15, 2019 to determine whether or not regulatory changes are warranted for “wastes associated with the exploration, development, or production of crude oil, natural gas, or geothermal energy.” With the recent freeze on all EPA grants, it is not clear whether these regulations will receive the review they need.

State Regulations

Regulation of this waste stream is left up to the states, but most states do not require operators to manage the radioactivity in oil and gas wastes either. Because of the RCRA exemptions, most state policies ignore the radioactive issue altogether. Operators are free to dispose the waste at any landfill facility, unless the landfill tells them otherwise. Because of the RCRA exemptions states either lack regulatory programs or at best have various piecemeal regulatory programs aimed low level radioactive waste disposal. For detailed analyses of state policies, see pages 10-45 of WORC’s No Time to Waste report.

Another issue that screams for federal consideration of this waste stream is that states do not have the authority to determine whether or not the wastes can cross their borders. Neither do they have the jurisdiction to decide whether or not facilities in their state accept waste from across state lines. That determination is reserved for federal jurisdiction, and there are not any federal laws regulating such wastes. In fact, these wastes are strategically exempt from federal regulation for just these reasons.

Why can’t the waste be treated?

This type of waste actually cannot be treated, at least not entirely. Unlike organic pollutants that can be broken down, inorganic constituents of the waste such as heavy metals like arsenic or bromides, and radioactive isotopes of radium, lead, and uranium cannot be simply disintegrated out of existence. These elements will continue to emit radiation for hundreds to thousands of years. The best option is to find a location to “isolate” these wastes that will be a sacrifice zone… forever.

Current practices do their best to separate the liquid portions from the solid portions but that’s about it. Each portion can then be disposed independently of each other. Liquids are injected into the ground, which is the cheapest option where available. If enough of the dissolved components (heavy metals, salts, and radioisotopes) can be removed, wastewaters are discharged to surface waters. The compounds and elements that are removed from the liquid waste stream are hyper-concentrated in the solid portion of the waste, described as “sludge” in the graphic above. This hazardous material can be disposed of in municipal or solid waste landfills if the state regulators do not require the radioactivity or toxicity of this material to be a consideration for disposal. There are no federal requirements, so unless there is a specific state policy regarding the disposal, it can end up almost anywhere with little oversight. These chemicals do not magically disappear. They never disappear. At best, the industry simply puts them in a big landfill where they will remain forever.

Risks

There are multiple pathways for contamination from facilities that are not qualified to manage radioactive and hazardous wastes. At least seven different environmental pathways provide potential risks for exposure. They include radon inhalation, external gamma exposure, groundwater ingestion, surface water ingestion, dust inhalation, food ingestion, and skin beta exposure from particles containing the radioisotopes. According to the EPA, the low-level radioactive materials in drilling waste present a definitive risk to those exposed. High risk examples include dust suppression and leaching. If dust is not continuously suppressed, radioactive materials in dust become harmful to those located on-site of these facilities or those receptors or secondary pathways located downwind of the facilities. Radioactive leachate entering surface waters and groundwaters is also a significant threat. A major consideration is that radioactive waste can last in these landfills far longer than the engineered lifespans of landfills, particularly those that are not designed to retain hazardous wastes.

Cases of Contamination

North Dakota

In North Dakota, the epicenter of the Bakken Oil Fields, regulators were not ready for the massive waste streams that came from the fast growing oil fields. This allowed thousands of wastewater disposal wells be drilled to dispose of salty wastewater without much oversight, and no places in state for companies to dispose of radioactive solid waste. Many of the wastewater disposal wells were drilled haphazardly, and as a result many contaminated surrounding farmland with wastewater. With regard to radioactive solid waste, the state until recently had a de facto ban on solid radioactive waste disposal due to their radioactivity limit being 5 picocuries per gram. The result of this de facto ban made it so companies either had to make one of two decisions:

  1. Haul their radioactive solid waste above the limit out of state to facilities in Idaho or Colorado; or
  2. Risk getting caught illegally dumping waste in municipal landfills or just plain illegal dumping in roadsides, buildings, or farmland.

In 2014, a massive illegal dumping site was discovered in Noonan, N.D., when North Dakota regulators found a gas station full of radioactive waste and filter socks (the socks used to filter out solid waste from wastewater, which contain high levels of radioactivity). Following the Noonan incident, North Dakota regulators and politicians reacted to public pressure and began discussions regarding the need for new regulations to address radioactive solid waste.

In 2015, North Dakota moved to create rules for the disposal of solid radioactive waste. Its new regulations increased the radioactivity limit from 5 picocuries per gram to 50 picocuries per gram, and set up new requirements for the permitting of waste facilities accepting radioactive waste and the disposal of radioactive waste in the waste facilities. Dakota Resource Council, a member group of WORC, challenged the rules in the courts, arguing the rules are not protective enough and that the agency responsible for the rules pushed through the rules without following the proper procedures. Currently the rules are not in effect until the litigation is settled.

Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, the hotbed of activity for Marcellus Shale gas extraction, the regulatory system was ill equipped and uninformed for dealing with the new massive waste stream. Through 2013, the majority of wastewater was disposed of in commercial and municipal wastewater treatment facilities that discharge to surface waters. Numerous facilities engaged in this practice without amending their federal discharge permits to include this new waste stream.

Waste treatment facilities in Pennsylvania tried to make the waste streams less innocuous by diluting the concentrations of these hazardous pollutants by diluting the fracking wastes with other waste streams, including industrial discharges and municipal waste. Other specialized facilities also tried to remove these dissolved inorganic elements and filter them from the discharge stream. As a result of site assessments by yours truly and additional academic research these facilities came to the conclusion that hazardous compounds do not simply dilute into receiving waters such as the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers. Instead they partition into sediments where they are hyper-concentrated. As a result of the lawsuits that followed the research, entire river bottoms in Pennsylvania had to be entirely dug up, removed, and disposed of in hazardous waste landfills.

Massive amounts of solid and liquid wastes are still generated during drilling exploration and production from the Marcellus Shale. There is so much waste, operators don’t know what to do with it. In Pennsylvania, there is not much they can do with it. And it is not just Pennsylvania. Throughout the Ohio River Valley, operators in Ohio and West Virginia struggle to dispose of this incredibly large waste stream. Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania have all learned that this waste should not be allowed to be discharged to surface waters even after treatment. So it goes to other states! These states are without production or the regulatory framework to manage the wastes. Like every phase of production in the oil and gas industry, operators (drillers) shop around for the lowest disposal costs. In Estill County, Kentucky, the State Energy and Environment Department just recently cited the disposal company Advance Disposal Services Blue Ridge Landfill for illegally dumping hydraulic fracturing waste. The waste had traveled from West Virginia Marcellus wells, and ended up at an ignorant or willfully negligent waste facility.