America’s dirtiest secret

How billions of barrels of toxic oil and gas waste are falling through regulatory cracks

Workers attempt to clean up a toxic site in Wyoming.

The oil and gas industry has a dirty little secret, make that a dirty big secret … no, make that one of the biggest, dirtiest secrets in U.S. history.

What is no secret these days is that the potential for negative environmental and health impacts as a result of oil and gas exploration and production activity is very real.

Concern over fracking, with its toxic cocktail composed of some combination of between 300 and 750 chemicals, 70 percent of which are known to be harmful to humans because they are carcinogenic or endocrine disruptors, etc., gets most of our collective attention these days. But this industry practice is not the only or largest contamination problem our nation faces as the result of oil and gas development.

In fact, the oil and gas industry’s other contamination problems are so large, they have literally been deemed impossible to prevent or even clean up by both industry and government. As a result, an unimaginable tonnage of contamination is being placed into our environment every year thanks to the near total lack of regulations over oil and gas exploration and production wastes.

The story behind this unregulated onslaught of contamination is so bizarre as to seem impossible, but it isn’t.

We often hear of the “Halliburton loophole,” a name used to describe a regulatory exemption that was created for the industry in 2005 to relieve fracking fluid of the burden of the Safe Drinking Water Act. But the Halliburton loophole is just one small exemption to federal regulations for the oil and gas industry. There are many others.

The mother of all oil and gas waste exemptions had its beginnings in 1978 when the EPA proposed reduced requirements for a couple of types of large-volume wastes associated with the oil and gas industry, namely produced water and drilling muds.

Today, the federal government and the oil and gas industry seem to have created a revisionist history of this early exemption process that gutted the requirements of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976 — an act created specifically to guarantee that there was cradle-to-grave oversight and enforcement for all hazardous wastes under RCRA’s Subtitle C.

The modern version of the Subtitle C exemption fictitiously purports that the reason for reducing requirements for oil and gas waste was because these large-volume wastes were deemed to be “lower in toxicity” and therefore not as much of a threat to human health and the environment as other wastes being regulated under Subtitle C. You can find such statements throughout the websites and literature of local, state and federal government regulators of toxic waste and in industry marketing materials.

But it is simply not true, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Go back and research the records of the exemption process and you will find a far different rationale for the largest exemption of toxic wastes in U.S. history.

In the late 1970s, the EPA had decided to study the idea of removing large volume oil and gas exploration and production wastes from RCRA’s Subtitle C. The study was barely off the ground when Ronald Reagan took office was elected in 1980 and government once again started tinkering with RCRA.

According to a 2002 EPA report on the RCRA oil and gas exemption, “The oil and gas exemption was expanded in the 1980 legislative amendments to RCRA to include “drilling fluids, produced water, and other wastes associated with the exploration, development, or production of crude oil or natural gas. . . .”

By the time they had finished defining “other wastes,” every single ounce of toxic waste generated by the process of exploring for and/or producing oil and gas had been removed from RCRA’s hazardous waste oversight.

The 1980 exemption was deemed temporary, pending EPA’s final report on whether it was a good idea to exempt such wastes. It was a cart and horse problem to be sure, but not one that the industry or its friends were going to complain about.

Finally, in 1987, EPA presented its exemption report to Congress.

What it did not say is that the exemption was being recommended because oil and gas waste isn’t as toxic as other waste governed by RCRA’s Subtitle C.

What EPA did say is a startling indictment of our system of environmental and public health oversight.

EPA’s report found that “oil, gas, and geothermal wastes originate in very diverse ecologic settings and contain a wide variety of hazardous constituents.”

EPA further found that “Imposition of Subtitle C regulations for all oil and gas wastes could subject billions of barrels of waste to regulation under Subtitle C as hazardous wastes and would cause a severe economic impact on the industry and on oil and gas production in the U.S. Additionally, because a large part of these wastes is managed in off-site commercial facilities, removal of the exemption could cause severe short-term strains on the capacity of Subtitle C Treatment, Storage, and Disposal Facilities, and a significant increase in the Subtitle C permitting burden for State and Federal hazardous waste programs.”

The report concluded that regulating toxic oil and gas exploration and production waste under RCRA Subtitle C would not give the agency the “flexibility to consider costs when applying these requirements to oil and gas wastes. Consequently, EPA would not be able to craft a regulatory program to reduce or eliminate the serious economic impacts that it has predicted.”

Translation: Even though this waste is hazardous to human health and the environment, EPA is going to exempt it from the federal laws written to protect the public from toxic waste because the problem is so massive (billions upon billions of barrels) that it would make it literally impossible to drill for oil and gas in the U.S. if the industry had to pick up the tab for remediating the contamination it creates. It is just math. More than 10 barrels of waste are created for every barrel of oil. Having to properly deal with this waste to Subtitle C standards would be so cost-prohibitive as to be a threat to our economy and, therefore, our security. And besides, the industry creates so much toxic waste that EPA was concerned that we couldn’t possibly find enough places to safely store it, so we might as well just make it legal to get rid of it wherever. In fact, there are so many billions and billions of barrels of toxic waste being created by the industry that the EPA was afraid that the federal government wasn’t capable of creating a bureaucratic licensing system large and efficient enough to produce enough permits to make the creation, transportation and disposal of the waste legal on paper. And finally, the government doesn’t want to cut into industry profits. End of translation.

This is the real history of oil and gas toxic waste regulations in this country, whether it’s drilling fluids, mud, produced water, radioactive sludge and scale or fracking fluid. As hard as it is for most people to believe, there is virtually no regulation on the vast majority of the oil and gas industry’s waste at any level of government.

There are plenty of “policies and guidance” concerning this waste — at least that’s what government likes to call them. “Suggestions” is the word most of us tend to use for the same meaning. But these government suggestions are not laws and they have very little, if any, enforcement mechanism. They can be completely ignored without fear of fine or other punishment.

The regulatory agencies at every level of government charged with overseeing oil and gas industry waste are engaged in a shell game of sorts called “find the regulation.”

The EPA says that it doesn’t need to regulate oil and gas exploration and production toxic waste under Subtitle C because the states mostly have this covered. The states, on the other hand, claim that they are charged with enforcing all federal laws concerning this waste, they just don’t tell you that the waste has been exempted from the federal law they claim to be enforcing. Literally everyone is using some version of legalese to claim that every other regulatory agency has authority over this waste when, in truth, no one does for the most part.

Some states, like Colorado, even have statutes on the books prohibiting their state regulatory agencies from creating any enforceable laws on oil and gas toxic waste unless and until the EPA ends its exemption, which of course it says it doesn’t need to do because the states have it covered. It is a dangerous game for all of us.

The real numbers of how much exempted exploration and production waste we are talking about is hard to come by because the government relies on the industry to provide them.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) estimated that 149 million barrels of drilling wastes, 17.9 billion barrels of produced water and 20.6 million barrels of other associated wastes were generated in 1995 from exploration and production (E&P) operations.

But that was before the largest drilling boom in history started. And the horizontal drilling in shale formations as well as production from coal bed gas fields is creating far more waste than traditional wells. So those numbers could easily have doubled or tripled by now.

The EPA claims it hasn’t given up on the idea of someday regulating the oil and gas industry’s toxic waste. It says that it is working with the industry to come up with appropriate options. The agency says that it’s just waiting for API to finish its analysis and recommend what the industry thinks should be done to better regulate its waste. That’s all fine and good, but API has been working on its analysis now for a quarter of a century. Perhaps we already have the industry’s answer.

In the weeks and months ahead, Boulder Weekly will be reporting on this lack of government oversight concerning the oil and gas industry’s toxic waste. The industry has received some level of exemptions from virtually every major environmental act that has come to pass, from clean air to clean water to safe drinking water to even Superfund’s ability to hold the industry accountable for paying for the contamination it has caused.

In addition to examining the industry’s regulatory loopholes, BW will also be investigating specific oil and gas waste streams that are being allowed to fly under the regulatory radar. We’ll do our best to shine light on the industry’s waste disposal practices and explore the possible impact that those disposal methods could have on our health and the environment.

Blowing the whistle, or at least trying to 

For this, our first installment on the subject, BW is reporting on how unregulated oil and gas waste has impacted the life of one man who now considers himself a whistleblower.

Denver resident Dennis Schum says he never heard the term TENORM until 2013, but it’s a constant part of his vocabulary these days. But first a little background.

Most of the shale formations that produce oil and gas were once ocean floors. That’s why the brine that is comingled with the hydrocarbons in these formations is so salty; often six times the salinity of the ocean. These formations most often also contain elements of uranium and thorium and their decay products such as Radium 226 and Radium 228. In short, when the oil and gas in these formations is produced, so is radioactive salt water, which is referred to as produced water.

The radiation in produced water is referred to as NORM, which stands for naturally occurring radioactive material. Produced water in some parts of the country, particularly Louisiana, Mississippi and some parts of Texas can come out of the ground very radioactive. In other states, the radiation tends to be closer to background levels. But if you run mineral-heavy produced water containing radioactive particles through pipes and equipment, it forms a scale, a solid substance of impurities from the water, on the metal that accumulates radiation over time in pipes, pumps and seals, becoming much more radioactive than the produced water flowing though it.

This is how TENORM is formed in pipes and tanks. TENORM is an acronym for technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materi als.

TENORM is NORM (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material) whose radiation has been enhanced by way of a human action of some sort.

The EPA’s website says that a single well can produce many tons of scale every year in pipes and tank bottoms or other equipment. Scale tends to form anywhere there is a change in temperature and pressure. While not all scale is radioactive, much of it is, and the radiation levels can be quite high. It is a major problem for the industry, but thanks to the RCRA Subtitle C exemption, oil companies can use a variety of questionable disposal methods to inexpensively dump their radioactive scale.

They can simply spread it on the ground, dump it in plugged wells, bury it on site or add it to fracking fluid and inject it underground. While states, like Colorado, may have policies and guidance that suggest that companies act more responsibly and send their TENORM waste to an appropriately licensed radioactive dump, they can’t make them do it or fine them if they don’t because of the exemptions to RCRA Subtitle C.

BW spoke with Dr. Marvin Resnikoff, a physicist at Radioactive Waste Management Associates and a national expert on the oil and gas industry’s TENORM scale. Resnikoff says workers who work in pipe yards that clean TENORM scale from pipes are getting major doses of radiation.

“It’s like working in front of an x-ray machine that never turns off all day long,” he says.

Even people living nearby such pipe yards who were subjected to TENORM scale particles blowing in the wind could become sick and develop cancers and other illnesses, Resnikoff said. He has been involved in numerous lawsuits from affected workers in the Gulf States, including a billion dollar jury award against Exxon that was later reduced $240 million.

Now back to our self-described whistleblower.

Dennis Schum is — or was — a senior mechanical seal repair technician at John Crane, Inc., an international corporation with a repair facility in Golden, Colo. The company, whose slogan is “empowering global energy through engineering,” has more than 6,900 employees worldwide and $1.9 billion in annual revenue, according to its website.

Earlier in March, Schum explained to BW that he doesn’t actually know what his employment status is at this time because he claims that the company is no longer taking his phone calls or answering his emails. He says he doesn’t even know if he still has a job or health insurance. All he knows, for now, is that the money has stopped coming in and his family is really struggling to get by.

He also knows he’s scared. Schum says he is afraid that he’s been breathing in radioactive particles and dangerous chemicals for years at his workplace and that he believes it may have harmed his health.

Beginning in 2005, Schum says, his job at John Crane was to repair and refurbish seals of various types and sizes that are used in the oil and gas industry as well as other industries that use high-pressured systems with large pumps. During this time he estimates that he worked on approximately “100 to 200 pipeline seals a year, plus another 100 to 200 seals related to fracking sites and then about 400 to 500 refinery seals.” Such seals can range from relatively small up to several hundred pounds. The pipeline seals, for example, weighed about 75 pounds each.

Schum claims that he has been cleaning and refurbishing engineered mechanical seals for the Enterprise Mid-America Pipeline (EMAP) for the past eight years. The EMAP is a 7,840-mile-long pipeline, which, according to the operator, transports mixed natural gas liquids from plants in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico to the Seminole pipeline in western Texas.

Schum alleges he was told in July that he would be receiving seals from the EMAP that were contaminated with NORM. He also asserts that this was the first time he had ever been told that seals he was working on were, or even could be, radioactive.

According to Schum, the NORM-contaminated EMAP seals looked just like the other EMAP seals he had been working on for years. When he took them apart, the inside components were covered with the same variously colored hard scale, which is difficult to remove and ultimately requires sandblasting to clear it from the surface of the metal. Schum alleges that the sandblasted material, which would have included any pulverized radioactive particles from the scale, was vented directly from the sand-blasting machine into the air outdoors via a vent on the roof of the building without being filtered.

Schum says that he was growing increasingly concerned about how he was handling the scale removal because he suspected the TENORM scale could be much higher in radiation than background levels. He also says he was told by a training consultant hired by the company in September that safe NORM levels should be no more than three times background radiation levels as a rule of thumb. At the shop where he worked, Schum claims, background radiation is around 70 counts per minute (CPM), meaning that anything over 210 CPM would be a matter of concern for him.

Schum also told BW that the same consultant told him that the respirator he had been issued by the company was not appropriate for working with radiation because it could still allow him to ingest radioactive particles. Boulder Weekly contacted the consultant, Robert Krumberger of New Generation Solutions, in an attempt to verify Schum’s claims about their conversations.

Krumberger says that all of his work is proprietary to his clients. As a result, he says, he could not comment on anything specific having to do with his contracted work for John Crane including anything he might or might not have said to any employee of the company. Documents examined by BW indicate that Krumberger provided a two-hour radiation safety awareness class at the company’s Golden facility.

Schum says his employer finally provided him with a Geiger counter on Sept. 17. But, he adds, “I had already cleaned and refurbished eight [EMAP] seals that the pump company claimed to have decontaminated down to background NORM levels. But I could tell that the insides of the seals where the scale was located hadn’t been tested or cleaned at all, because it was obvious that the seals hadn’t been disassembled, so it wasn’t possible.”

Schum says he used the Geiger counter on the next EMAP seals he opened and that, in some of them, the internal scale measured much more than the presumed safe level of three times background. In one seal, he alleges, the Geiger counter found scale measuring as high as 2,700 CPM. Other seals, according to Schum, had components with radiation levels ranging from 700 to 2,400 CPM.

A nuclear industry health technician — who asked that his identity be withheld because he isn’t personally familiar with the circumstances Schum allegedly faced — told BW that, if confirmed, the levels of radiation Schum claims he found in the seals would definitely be a matter for concern. The technician says that from a long-term, external exposure perspective, the biggest concern would be that a worker could hit his/ her annual limit for exposure to bodypenetrating gamma rays, but that at such levels as those purported by Schum, this would require nearly constant exposure to the radioactive scale.

“The more concerning threat from oil and gas generated TENORM,” says the technician, “is inhalation.” He says Radium 226 has a half-life of 1,600 years and Radium 228 has a half-life of approximately 5.7 years.

“If even one particle is inhaled,” he explains, “it can lodge in the lungs and cause damage to tissue for the rest of a person’s life. Such damage can include cancers and other serious illnesses.”

The EPA’s posted warnings for radium inhalation confirm the technician’s analysis.

Schum says he grew more weary and depressed with each revelation concerning TENORM in the seals.

“For seven years, my company only gave me disposable gloves, safety glasses and shoes to work around this scale,” he says. “Not just the TENORM scale from pipelines, but the scale made of unknown chemicals that are inside all the fracking seals I worked on. What was in that fracking scale that I was breathing in when I put it in the ultrasonic cleaner or sandblaster? No one can tell me because fracking fluid’s a secret. They are supposed to write down what chemicals you could be exposed to and send it along with the seals, but they don’t do it with fracking seals.”

As Schum’s apprehension over how he was being asked to carry out his job grew, he says he began to take pictures to document his concerns. He photographed the Geiger counter with its readings of the seals they were measuring. He photographed the scale he found in the seals. He photographed himself in his respirator and he dug up photos to show his pre-respirator personal protective equipment.

He also photographed the sand blasting machine, which he alleges had leaks in the door that sent particulates flying around the room, a powdery dust he says he couldn’t help but breathe in and now suspects contained radioactive particles and unknown fracking chemicals.

“[The sandblasting machine] would just cover my head and my shoes with white dust when I used it,” he says. “I’m afraid I carried TENORM particulates home on my clothes or shoes or in my hair and exposed my family. For seven years, no one ever warned me that could happen. Now I know it can.”

After he spoke to and listened to the consultant’s training, Schum says, he became even more concerned for his wellbeing.

“I finally felt like I had to tell someone,” he says. “So I called OSHA.”

Schum could not have timed it worse. The federal government shut down took effect immediately after he filed his complaint. It was nearly three weeks later when Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors finally arrived in Golden.

They walked through the shop and found no radioactivity above acceptable background levels. As a result, after one trip to the plant, they declared that Schum’s claims about working with dangerous levels of TENORM that he wasn’t properly trained to handle were “unsubstantiated.”

Schum says that when the inspectors came, there was no work being done on radioactive seals contaminated with scale.

“They couldn’t have found what I was claiming because [ John Crane] had moved all the seals out before the inspection,” he says. “I tried to show them my pictures to prove I was telling the truth and they said they didn’t even want to see them. I told them what the consultant said and they didn’t care. The company even admitted to them that they had some TENORM-contaminated seals and OSHA just closed the case anyway.”

BW examined documents from the OSHA files concerning Schum’s case.

In a letter-style report summarizing OSHA’s investigation of John Crane dated Dec. 9, Area Director Dave Nelson wrote the following:

“Prior to the filing of the formal complaint, the employer identified that certain pumps were arriving at the worksite for repair which were contaminated with Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM). This NORM consisted of radioactive mineral deposits which were found on pumps which the employer was rebuilding for the oil and gas industry. Basic NORM training was given to all employees (including the complainant) on Sept. 26 (the day before the formal complaint was filed) … OSHA determined that, although there probably was NORMcontaminated pumps in the facility at some time, the steps taken by the employer before OSHA’s arrival were sufficient to eliminate or minimize any future NORM exposure. No citations were recommended for the NORM issue.”

In an interview with BW, OSHA’s Dave Nelson explained that OSHA’s primary responsibility was to prevent any future problems at the facility that could endanger workers. He also said that the photographs taken by Schum could not be used as proof of past exposure to radiation. He concluded that OSHA could not establish past exposure of Schum as no Geiger counter readings or other records had ever been taken on seals during Schum’s first seven years.

BW asked Krumberger, the consultant, if OSHA had ever bothered to interview him about the things that Schum told OSHA, the allegations that the consultant had said things were being done incorrectly regarding NORM contamination at John Crane. Krumberger says that OSHA had not spoken with him at all. From the files it also appears that OSHA never attempted to contact anyone who had provided seals over the past seven years to determine if any of the seals might have been checked for radiation prior to being sent to John Crane.

OSHA is not unfamiliar with oil and gas TENORM contamination. As early as 1989, OSHA was issuing Safety Hazard Bulletins on the potential health hazards associated with handling pipe used in oil and gas production that had become radioactive.

It also appears that before closing Shum’s case, OSHA never attempted to set up times with his employer to take samples of scales for testing of chemicals and/or radiation from inside pumps coming into the repair shop in the future.

At this point, Schum has given a letter to OSHA disputing the results of the agency’s inspection findings. He has also given OSHA an additional letter alleging whistleblower discrimination.

BW contacted John Over, operations manager at John Crane’s Golden facility. Over told BW that OSHA “didn’t find anything here so nothing applies, that’s all I can tell you.”

When asked about Schum’s assertion that he believes that he was likely exposed to radiation during his eight years at the company, Over said, “There’s no way to know what happened in the past.”

He continues, “Nobody knew anything. NORM is relatively new to Colorado, it’s just being brought to the limelight. Colorado doesn’t even have NORM standards. I can’t comment on the past.”

Over adds that, “This is relatively low level radiation, and it’s not harmful unless it gets ingested, breathed in, and we’ve taken precautions. I don’t think Dennis has a case.”

Over then suggested that BW call back the next morning after he had contacted his attorney. During the second call the next morning he said that he had emailed his attorney and hadn’t heard back, but he expected that she would be getting in touch directly with BW. BW didn’t hear from the attorney before press time.

Schum also asked the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to investigate his concerns.

After his request, an investigation was conducted. Schum eventually received a letter from the CDPHE Hazardous Material and Waste Management Division. The letter states that, “Based on the results of the investigation, no violations of current regulations or policies were found and there is no evidence that the TENORM-contaminated seals processed from July through September created an undo health risk to employees. Additionally, the operating procedures at John Crane appear adequate for controlling potential TENORM exposure and contamination at their facility.”

Dennis Schum is getting more desperate every day. He feels like there is no place for him to turn in order to find out what radiation and chemicals were in the scale of the hundreds of seals he cleaned over the past eight years. He is only now beginning to realize just how unregulated the world of oil and gas waste really is. He gets told that no regulations were broken, but he never hears the truth, that there are no regulations to break. He’s more concerned about his health than ever and can’t figure out where to turn next.

He says he’s thinking about making a sign and heading to the steps of the state Capitol. He says, “Maybe then someone will hear me.”


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