Facing South
Facing South

Environmental disaster on Louisiana bayou highlights radioactive hazards of oil and gas drilling

Along with a massive sinkhole, anger is growing in Assumption Parish, La. as details emerge that state and corporate officials knew for over a year about the potential for structural failure at a salt mine used to store oil and gas drilling waste but failed to alert local residents.

Adding to the alarm is the fact that Texas Brine, the Houston-based company that owns the mine, received a permit from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources in 1995 to dispose of naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) from oil and gas exploration in the cavern, part of the Napoleonville Salt Dome. A sinkhole appeared at the site earlier this month, leading to an evacuation order for residents of 150 nearby homes, who for months had been reporting mysterious gas bubbles in the swamp and tremors in the area around Bayou Corne. The slurry hole is now over 370 feet wide and over 420 feet deep.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality released results from the first set of NORM tests last week, reporting that "there were no detectable levels" on the sinkhole's surface. Those tests used handheld radioactive monitoring devices. DEQ scientists also took water and soil samples that have been sent to a lab for more detailed analysis; those results are expected this week.

Officials in Assumption Parish, which is located about 70 miles west of New Orleans, say they learned about the NORM disposal at the site through news reports. Sheriff Mike Waguespack told The Advocate newspaper that he was disturbed because he had assigned deputies to work around the sinkhole without knowing about the radioactive risk.

Texas Brine is the largest independent brine producer in the United States, supplying over 30 percent of the brine needed by the chloralkali industry, which uses it to produce chlorine and other chemical products. The company also offers underground storage for natural gas and other petroleum products in the massive salt caverns created by the mining process. Its storage customers include Houston-based Kinder Morgan, an oil and gas pipeline operator that's also one of the largest oil producers in Texas, and CenterPoint Energy, a natural gas utility also based in Houston.

NORM is naturally present in geologic formations that contain oil and gas deposits and is released through drilling activities. Because the extraction process concentrates the radionuclides, they are also referred to as "technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material," or TENORM. These materials include uranium, thorium, radium and their decay products.

Drilling for both oil and natural gas create NORM/TENORM disposal issues. Last year, a New York Times investigation found that wastewater produced by fracking for natural gas was tainted with higher levels of radioactive materials than previously known and was being hauled to sewage plants unable to treat it properly, resulting in releases to rivers and risks to the environment and human health.

The average radiation levels of soils across the United States range from a low of 0.2 picocuries per gram to 4.2 pCi/g, with Gulf Coast soils among those more likely to contain radioactive material. In comparison, produced water from oil and gas production can range from a low of 0.1 pCi/g to 9,000 pCi/g, according to the EPA.

That upper level greatly exceeds even the highest the levels of radiation in ash from coal-fired power plants, which ranges from 1.6 pCi/g to 9.7 pCi/g. The potentially dangerous radioactivity levels of coal ash got attention in the wake of the 2008 coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant in eastern Tennessee.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that while the radioactivity levels in produced waters from oil and gas drilling are generally low, the volumes are large:

The ratio of produced water to oil is 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.

Produced waters contain levels of radium and its decay products that are concentrated, but the concentrations vary from site to site. In general, produced waters are re-injected into deep wells or are discharged into non-potable coastal waters.

Disposal of this waste into salt caverns is classified as a type of deep well injection.

The EPA exempts wastes produced during exploration, development and production of oil and natural gas from regulation as hazardous waste under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. It leaves oversight up to the states.

In 1992, Louisiana became the first state to develop and implement a NORM regulatory program. It requires operators who handle materials with significant NORM concentrations to obtain a general license from the state, and it requires NORM to be disposed of at licensed NORM disposal facilities.

Texas Brine is currently drilling a relief well to investigate the structural problems at the cavern. Company officials say it could take as long as 40 days to get answers.

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Post by Anonymous on 08/14/2012 at 23:01 is an IDIOT !!!!

THE ANONYMOUS POSTER on 08/14/2012 is a total IDIOT!!!! It is easy for that MORON to say "we will just have to adjust and go on and stop WHINING about this situation" in BAYOU CORNE, Louisiana. I would have to take a wild guess and say that this MORON DOES NOT LIVE IN OR AROUND what he perceives as the danger zone. Let me ask this IDIOT this question. IDIOT; you have obviously not gathered any facts on your own, and you seem be BRAINLESS and CLUELESS about Radioactive waste, so would you drink the water in that area? How would you feel if it was you or one of your loved ones who was Dying of Radiation ingestion by merely breathing or drinking the only water available to you or them; BOTH OF WHICH ARE NECESSARY TO LIVE; and someone told you not to WHINE ???? After all ; according to you" the NATION WILL GO ON" !!!! You are what we refer to the old south as a CATFISH, because you are ALL MOUYH , AND NO BRAIN!!!!!! why don't YOU move to ASSUMPTION PARRISH, and live there until the whole region is POISONED TO DEATH, OR BLOWN OUT OF EXISTENCE !!!! Maybe you will get a CLUE Then !!! Until then KEEP YOUR DAMNED MOUTH SHUT, OR DO SOMETHING TO HELP !!!!! BETTER YET: JUST GO AWAY IDIOT!!!!! I am so SICK of people like you!!! You don't want here anything bad, because it is considered by you as someone PISSING IN YOUR CHEERIOS !!!! GROW UP JERK !! We have an EXTREMELY DANGEROUS SITUATION BREWING!!!! It WILL affect YOU, NO MATTER WHERE YOU LIVE IN THE USA !!!! WAKE UP !!!!

radiation monitoring

Most radiation from radioisotopes is stopped by just inches of air and is unmeasurable by hand held devices. Having such devices find no danger is meaningless. Such radiation is harmless for external exposure, but if those radioactive atoms get ingested or inhaled they can cause massive, even fatal, damage.

Isotopic Analysis

It would be interesting to find out if the elements in the mine are nuclear byproducts of commercial reactors. The answer could raise questions about groundwater and aquafer. Isotopic analysis and comparison of the elements in the mine with nearby nuclear power plants seems like a reasonable exercise in due diligence.

well we will just learn to

well we will just learn to cope with it because the world goes on and it will all work out in the end. worse things have happen to us and we survived that without having to whine about it for months. maybe the rest of this country will learn some times %&%^$ happens but we will overcome and do our part to keep the nation going forward.

Really? So you're saying that

Really? So you're saying that the citizens of Louisiana should do their part to keep the country "going forward" in much the same way the residents of Minamata "did their part" to keep Japan's industrialization "moving forward"?

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