Downstream Radioactivity: What on Earth is Coming out of the Pipes? Moderated by Justin Nobel April 5, 2023
Join us Wednesday April 5th, 3 – 5 p.m. EST / noon – 2 p.m. PST
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America’s fracking boom is roaring into its third decade and shows no sign of slowing. Industry’s promoters have assured this oil and gas extraction technique would be safe for communities. “America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk,” President Barack Obama declared in his 2012 State of the Union Address. But has this really happened?
Inspired by a bombshell Truthdig article published this past January, “Growing List of Fracking Concerns Now Includes Radioactivity,” Truthdig is proud to present a unique webinar on one of the more overlooked aspects of oil and gas development — that radioactivity is brought to the surface with natural gas and oil production and travels through America’s natural gas pipeline and oil refining systems.
Little-known industry documents suggest radioactivity is being released into the air and adjacent communities, at compressor stations, petrochemical plants and oil refineries. Now for the first time, teams of scientists and health experts are examining the issue and collecting data.
Downstream Radioactivity: What on Earth is Coming out of the Pipes? provides a unique opportunity for advocacy groups, legislators, government regulators, oil and gas industry workers, and residents and community members across the country to learn about this issue, the health concerns, the latest science, how some communities are fighting back and holding industry accountable and steps you can take to raise awareness in your own communities and among your own networks.
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Science journalist, writing book on oilfield radioactivity for Simon & Schuster.
Justin Nobel writes on issues of science and the environment for U.S. magazines, investigative sites and literary journals. His 2020 feature with Rolling Stone magazine, “America’s Radioactive Secret,” was the result of a two-year investigation into the radioactivity brought to the surface in oil and gas production and the harms posed to the industry’s workers, the public and communities and the environment; it was awarded Best Narrative Feature with the National Association of Science Writers. Justin is writing a book on the topic of oilfield radioactivity for Simon & Schuster, due to be published in spring 2024.
Wayne State University Geologist and radon expert – Speaking about research conducted in the Marcellus/Utica shale region involving radioactive emissions at downstream oil and gas infrastructure including pipelines and compressor stations.
Baskaran is a tenured full-time professor and chair in the Department of Environmental Science and Geology at Wayne State University (Detroit, Michigan), where he teaches both introductory level courses in oceanography, meteorology, and physical geology. Baskaran has published over 162 peer-reviewed articles and edited a two-volume Handbook entitled “Handbook of Environmental Isotope Geochemistry.”He also published a monograph on radon entitled “Radon: A Tracer for Geological, Geophysical and Geochemical Studies.”
University of Pittsburgh radiation oncologist – Speaking about health risks associated with oil and gas industry’s radioactive emissions, the various radioactive elements involved, and the research she is currently involved with on the topic.
Haley, M.D., MPH, is a clinical assistant professor of radiation oncology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She specializes in the treatment of breast and gynecological cancers.
Consultant with Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania – Speaking about experience catching a radioactive cloud of emissions on her motorcycle that may have been connected to a purging event on the nearby natural gas liquids pipeline, and the informal network of residents she has setup across southern and southeastern Pennsylvania to help monitor for these concerning pipeline-related blowdown and emissions events.
DiGiulio is an avid lover of nature, a water protector and Pennsylvania resident near Marsh Creek Lake. She also co-founded the Watchdogs of South-Eastern Pennsylvania (WaSEPA) and the Better Path Coalition, and has been actively opposed to Energy Transfer’s Mariner East pipeline system and the fossil fuel industry. She presently works as an analyst with Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania.
Medical advocacy director with Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania – Speaking on considerable efforts her organization has made to inform and spotlight this issue across oil and gas country through a series of virtual and in-person talks and town hall style events, and also ongoing research efforts on the issue, and work done to link residents and scientists and inform regulatory action.
Murphy has worked as an educator, a special health projects assistant, a volunteer, an advocate, a program director, an executive director, a medical outreach coordinator and a consultant. Above all else, she is passionate about justice and the intersection of law and social movements.
Colorado atmospheric scientist and air pollution expert – Speaking on data his team is presently collecting at an oil refinery in Denver, Colorado which involves the first ever continual real-time monitoring of oil and gas industry radioactive emissions.
Helmig’s research focuses on surface-atmosphere gas exchange, atmospheric chemistry and atmospheric transport. He is presently studying local and regional air quality in relation to oil and gas operations in Colorado, monitoring that reflects a series of novel instrumental and data processing advancements that facilitate the near-real time reporting of primary air pollutants at a public website. He is presently editor-in-chief of the Atmospheric Science Domain, Elementa – Science of the Anthropocene.
Former emergency medicine and palliative care physician and Virginia-based member of Physicians for Social Responsibility – Speaking about continued efforts to bring attention to regulators and industry looking to construct the Mountain Valley Pipeline on point of radioactive emissions and radioactive sludge and scale buildup within the pipeline, issues that are presently a regulatory black hole.
Smusz is a retired physician with masters degrees in public health and community health education. Her recent efforts have been publicizing health threats posed by high pressure methane transmission lines carrying hydraulically fractured gas. An M.D. since 1986, she practiced emergency medicine for 15 years before retraining in the specialty of palliative care serving people with advanced life-limiting illness. As a hospice medical director she served many people who succumbed to pollutants from work settings and the environment.
Informed resident – Speaking on an exceptional letter-writing campaign he has undertaken, with the help of many others, to raise considerable awareness to state and federal regulators on the issue of downstream oilfield radioactivity and hold these agencies appropriately accountable.
Limpert works on issues of Stormwater Management for Maryland’s National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and Montgomery County’s Department of Environmental Protection. He is a member of the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance in opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), and has also worked to hold industry and regulators accountable on the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Growing List of Fracking Concerns Now Includes Radioactivity, Jan 9, 2023 Industry documents and new research suggests the natural gas pipeline system emits significant amounts of radioactivity by Justin Nobel, Jan 9, 2023, Truthdig
One morning in the fall of 2019, just as the sun was beginning to poke through a layer of overnight fog, a former Army chemist and explosives expert living in Philadelphia named Christina Digiulio set out on her motorcycle, a Harley Davidson Nightster, wearing pajamas under her motorcycle gear and carrying a portable radiation detector called the GQ GMC 500 Plus.
It was humid with a slight breeze as she rode down a slope on Little Conestoga Road in Upper Uwchlan Township, an affluent and generally sleepy Chester County suburb, just west of Philadelphia. She was not riding aimlessly, but headed toward a pump station that had been flaring off emissions from a natural gas liquids (NGL) pipeline.
“My Geiger counter started going crazy,” recalls Digiulio. “It was almost like a cloud was hanging. And I was inhaling it.”
The manual that accompanied Digiulio’s device directed users, who received readings this high that persisted over time, to contact the responsible government agency. But there was nothing to indicate the kind of event the manual likely had in mind, such as the signature of a dirty bomb attack or a nuclear power plant leak. It was a peaceful morning among suburban homes with swimming pools and occasional farm fields. It seemed like the only possible source for such high levels of radiation was the pump station, a small industrial plot of pipes, valves and featureless buildings near the top of a long rolling hill.
At the time of Digiulio’s unusual radiation experience, America’s fracking boom was roaring into its third decade. Although fracking requires the use of explosives and a long list of toxic, often secret chemicals to crack oil and gas out of hard-to-reach formations, its promoters assured communities that it was safe. “I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use,” President Barack Obama declared in his 2012 State of the Union Address. “America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.”Billions of pounds of trade secret chemicals including fracs with deadly PFAS and health harms galore is what communities and families got instead.
Digiulio is among a growing group of Americans who have learned that fracking is not safe and raises a number of safety and health concerns that we are still only beginning to fully comprehend. The use of secret chemicals has riled the medical community and poses unknown contamination risks to oilfield workers. Methane emissions contribute to the climate crisis. The reinjection of oilfield waste leads to earthquakes and contaminates property. To this list we can add Digiulio’s discovery in 2019, now part of a body of growing and ominous evidence, that fracking produces enormous radioactivity emissions.
“If you asked me to go and live downwind [of fracking sites], I would not go,” Petros Koutrakis, an environmental scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the Guardian in 2020, after his research team published a scientific article revealing airborne radioactivity increased downwind of fracking sites. “People should not go crazy,” Koutrakis stated, “but I think it’s a significant risk that needs to be addressed.”
One of the more concerning suspected locations of release are the myriad pump stations and compressor stations that have popped up along the nation’s sprawling natural gas pipeline system. These are necessary to keep pressure in pipelines containing NGLs and natural gas, as these fuels are piped out of America’s gas-rich fracked formations, such as the Eagle Ford Shale and Permian Basin in Texas, and the Marcellus and Utica formations in northern West Virginia, eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania, bound for use in fueling East Coast and Midwest cities and home stoves, transport as liquified natural gas across oceans to gas-hungry Europe and Asia or as feedstock for the plastics industry.
While pipeline safety is regulated by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), environmentalists and Congress have regularly criticized the agency. “Unfortunately, federal safety regulators fail to do their jobs when it comes to pipeline safety,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) stated at a Senate hearing in November 2018. “The agency is the poster child for an agency that has been captured by the industry it is supposed to regulate. Rather than being a watchdog it has become a lapdog.”
The Mariner East 2 pipeline network that Digiulio was investigating transports NGLs from the Marcellus-Utica across the state of Pennsylvania to a port on the Delaware River. For years, activists have been battling industry and regulators about the thousands of tons of methane and known carcinogens like benzene that are leaked, flared and released from compressor stations and pump stations during events known as “blowdowns” — necessary pressure adjustments that purge pipeline contaminants directly into the air and onto the land of adjacent farms and communities.
Digiulio’s discovery on that fall morning in 2019 followed a tip from locals living along the Mariner East 2 that flaring was expected to purge the pipelines of contaminants. Knowing that the natural gas and NGLs flowing through the nation’s pipeline network also contain the radioactive gas radon—initially brought to the surface with the hydrocarbons and unable to be removed by generally followed treatment processes—she suspected the blowdown might include radioactive releases. Recently publicized oil and gas industry documents — brought to light by my own reporting — corroborate these concerns and suggest that the industry has had knowledge for decades that the releases may also contain radioactivity.
A major breakthrough occurred in the spring of 2021. Just a year-and-a-half after her early morning motorcycle ride, Digiulio led the world-renowned radon expert, Dr. Mark Baskaran of Wayne State University, along with one of this his graduate students, Bobby Manion, on a tour of compressor stations and other oil and gas infrastructure across the region. Joining them was Lois Bjornson, who gives “frack tours” to journalists as a field organizer with a Pennsylvania-based group called the Clean Air Council, the southwestern Pennsylvania environmental watchdog Mountain Watershed Association, University of Pittsburgh radiation oncologist Dr. Marsha Haley and members of the Pennsylvania chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a national health and environmental advocacy group. It was a science team I helped organize; after two years the results are finally in and Baskaran and Manion are looking to publish in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity later this year.
“What we have found,” says Baskaran, who scoured the scientific literature on oilfield radioactivity in preparing the research, “is that the oil and gas industry produces an enormous amount of radioactivity.”
On the research field trip undertaken in the spring of 2021, Baskaran’s team gathered samples at homes that have had oil and gas development on the property, homes near landfills that are accepting significant amounts of oilfield waste and homes near natural gas and NGL pipelines. But the results that may hold the most meaning for those pressing to hold the oil and gas industry accountable may be the set of soil samples the team took at the fenceline of the Eagle Compressor Station. It’s located in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, a northwestern suburb of Philadelphia, and less than 200 feet from the Fellowship Fields, a community recreation area that contains football, lacrosse and soccer fields. Baskaran says the calculated radiation dose from the elevated levels of radioactivity observed in a few sites is below the annual dose limit of 0.05 Sv (or 5 rem) for radiation workers.
“We can say that compressor stations, based on our numbers, do appear to elevate radioactivity,” said Manion, Baskaran’s graduate student. “We certainly want to look further at compressor stations across this region and the nation to see if levels are elevated elsewhere or even higher in some places.”
Background levels of lead-210 and polonium-210 are generally around 1 to 2 picocuries per gram but at the Eagle Compressor Station, the scientists took eight samples and found levels consistent with lead-210 measuring as high as 3.95 and polonium-210 as high as 3.14 picocuries per gram. Radium levels, often around 1 picocurie per gram in background soil, were also consistently elevated and recorded as high as 4.05 picocuries per gram. “Often in surface soil, higher levels of polonium-210 and lead-210 are found due to atmospheric deposition (atmospheric radon decaying to lead-210 that are subsequently removed by precipitation and delivered to surface earth),” says Baskaran. “Elevated levels in deeper layers of soil cores likely indicate impact oil-related activities.”
Energy Transfer, the Texas-based company that owns the Mariner East 2 pipeline, has not replied to questions concerning radioactivity in their NGL and natural gas pipeline systems.
A trail of oil and gas industry reports details radioactivity accumulations and emissions in the natural gas pipeline system. Oil and gas production brings to the surface an extremely salty and toxic fluid known as oilfield brine, or produced water, which typically contains elevated levels of heavy metals, including the radioactive metal radium. Tanks and trucks that hold and transport brine can accumulate a sludge that contains even more concentrated levels of radium, and my reporting has shown this radioactivity can dangerously accumulate on worker’s clothes and bodies.
However, the concern in natural gas and NGL pipelines is the radioactive gas radon.
Radon is produced with natural gas at the wellhead and travels freely through the pipeline system. All radioactive elements eventually decay, meaning they give off a burst of radiation, losing a small piece of themselves to become another element. Radon-222 decays relatively quickly, after a matter of days or weeks, becoming the radioactive element polonium, which in turn will continue to fire off radiation, transforming into radioactive forms of lead, bismuth and other isotopes of polonium. It is these radioactive metals that stick to the inside of natural gas pipelines, and also accumulate on various pumps, valves and filters inside the pipeline systems. If there are emission points along the pipeline system, explains Baskaran, then the radioactive gas radon, along with lead-210, bismuth-210 and polonium-210, will likely be emitted too.
The radioactive sludge that builds in pipelines may be contaminated with radioactive lead and polonium, with some of this waste so radioactive it “must be handled as low-level radioactive waste and disposed of accordingly,” according to a 1993 article written by industry consultant Peter Gray in the Journal of Petroleum Technology, the flagship publication of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, one of the industry’s most prestigious professional groups. In 2019, another industry consultant, Alan McArthur, provided a presentation to a group of government experts known as the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors on the dangers of radioactivity in the natural gas pipeline system. He listed risks to industry workers and the environment, and advised that “respiratory air and public air monitoring should be required on all” projects involving natural gas infrastructure.
The concern is not specific to Pennsylvania—it permeates the entire nation. Crisscrossing America are 321,000 miles of natural gas transmission and gathering pipelines, with valves, pumps, filters, and certain bends and edges continuously coated in radioactive scale and sludge.
How radioactive is this sludge? How much of it is out there? How is it all cleaned out? Where is it disposed?
The two main agencies responsible for regulating pipelines — the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — have no clue. They are not checking for radioactivity emissions from pipelines and gas infrastructure before issuing permits companies must acquire before building these systems. This denies the American public the knowledge that the problem exists, thus preventing them from raising awareness and concern about the issue in comments on projects and at public meetings.
Compressor stations exist in every state. They are regularly located beside parks, busy roadways, commercial centers and residences. In Pennsylvania, a compressor station can be located as close to 750 feet from a home or school. “Emissions occur continuously during normal operations, as hazardous pollutants carried with the gas are vented or leak from equipment,” says the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, an advocacy group of nurses and health professionals.
“These toxics can be carried downwind from the compressor station to residents in surrounding areas, impacting people living within a six mile radius of the compressor station or, in some cases, a greater distance, depending on weather conditions and terrain.”
Rosebud is surrounded by Encana/Ovintiv (now Lynx) compressors within a radius much less than six miles, as are many other communities in Canada. These two polluting ugly piece-of-shit noise makers shoddily constructed by Encana (one initially without any noise mitigation) in the photo below are about 900 metres from my house and 400 metres from edge of my property which I used to walk daily. I no longer walk out back alone because the many men “dropping in” trying to threaten me silent have scared me enough that I no longer feel safe doing so. I pay the taxes and upkeep, and spent a fortune cleaning up the old farm but much of it’s no longer available to me to use because of the frac’ers and their worshippers. The compressor noise continues to violate my legal right to quiet enjoyment of my home and land, and has done for 20 years. It’s getting louder every year, last summer the noise was galling to endure. By building many smaller compressor stations instead of a few big ones, companies in Canada avoid having to install appropriate pollution controls:
There are many more compressors around Rosebud (which is at the bottom of a steep valley), within less than six miles radius and many others are right by homes and family farms.
For the last decade, environmentalists have occupied treetops, cornfields and entire communities to fight fossil fuel pipelines. Perhaps no fight has been more hotly contested than the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a proposed project to take fracked gas from an especially gas-rich quadrant of the Marcellus Shale in northwestern West Virginia, across the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, under the Appalachian Trail, through the heart of Virginia and into North Carolina. The pipeline has been vigorously resisted by a broad and diverse coalition of West Virginians and Virginians, and remains mired in legal challenges, despite the continued efforts of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to ram its approval through Congress.
“It became clear to us early on that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s role was actually to facilitate completion of this destructive and dangerous infrastructure,” says Tina Smusz, a retired emergency medicine and palliative care physician and Virginia-based member of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
“Sadly, they appear to have taken no interest in this serious issue,” she continued. “On one memorable occasion I asked members of the local gas company specifically about the radiation hazards associated with the station’s operation and maintenance, expressing my concern for the people in the neighborhood as well as the future maintenance workers. The gas company representatives dived quickly for their phones, looked blankly at each other and responded vaguely that it was not an issue.”
Furthermore, adds Smusz, “the specter of a 300-mile long radioactive Superfund site traversing two states through perpetuity has not been addressed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC,” which regulates interstate gas pipelines. Indeed, when FERC reviews pipeline projects, compressor stations are included in the review, and emissions must be reviewed under the Clean Air Act, but radioactive emissions are not included as part of this review.
FERC has passed off my questions on the issue of radioactivity in the pipeline system to other agencies. And PHMSA has not replied to specific questions on this topic.
“I suspect that substantive data like this would improve our ability to mobilize more citizens to protest and hopefully prevent these harmful projects,” says Smusz.
“People, in general, have a healthy fear of anything radioactive, and that fear may help tip outcomes in the favor of protecting our communities.”
Refer also to:
2021: Brilliant courageous Justin Nobel to PA DEP’s Bureau of Radiation Protection at “Policy Hearing on Closing Hazardous Waste Loopholes” about oil & gas companies “screwing their own workers.” Critical issue in frac fields, including in Canada, because of the massive volumes of radioactive waste generated (Radium 226 persists for 1,600 years)
2021: Presentation by Justin Nobel on frac waste and its “terrifying levels of radioactivity”
2021: Resource Guide and videos for all sessions now available: 9th Annual Shale & Public Health (Dec 10, 2021) Conference by Halt the Harm Network and Physicians for Social Responsibility: “Cradle to Grave: The Reverberating Health Hazards of Oil and Gas Industry.” Focus on workers’ exposure to PFAS chemicals, radioactivity, and effects on their families, communities and beyond.
2021: Frac Investors Beware: Untold Financial Risks of Radioactive Waste to be Publicly Disclosed
2021: Turn toxic radioactive frac waste into bathing water to burn your babies’ skin off? To ingest, breath and live with? “It’s economically prohibitive to clean the water.” What do oil & gas companies hate more than anything? Spending money to clean up their deadly pollution, on the environment or to protect public health and our drinking water. Terrifying: Water management market for oil and gas production in the U.S. was worth $33.6 **billion** in 2018 (for their use, not ours!)
2020: Youngstown Ohio: “Big Oil’s Dangerous Secret.” Rolling Stone Magazine Science Journalist Justin Nobel and City Senior Battalion Chief Sil Caggiano to Present Crucial Information on Harms of Radioactive Oil & Gas Waste
2020: America’s Radioactive Secret: Oil & gas wells produce nearly a trillion gallons of toxic waste a year in America. It could be making workers sick and contaminating communities (in Canada too). “Us bringing this stuff to the surface is like letting out the devil … It is just madness.”
2019: Pennsylvania regulator allowing radioactive frac waste discharged into rivers as landfill leachate, Impacting Chesapeake Bay & Ohio River Watersheds
2018: Rolling Stone reports on Compendium 5: ‘The Harms of Fracking’: New Report Details Increased Risks of Asthma, Birth Defects and Cancer. Dr. Sandra Steingraber: “Fracking is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” Dr. Pouné Saberi: “There is a code of silence….” Workers rarely report injuries or hazards, for fear of losing their jobs.
Worker in oil and gas waste, photo by Justin Nobel
2016: Alberta wildfires will leave toxic legacy, experts warn. What about the radioactive waste storage site near Ft McMurray?
2014: Rachel Maddow Show: illegal radioactive dump site found in remote North Dakota town, Noonan mayor angry over situation with radioactive filter socks
2014: North Dakota frac’d Bakken radioactive oilfield waste spilling out of trailers parked on rural land near Watford City: When the filter socks are “that orange color, we know they’re hot”
2012: Encana’s waste dumped on cropland at Rosebud, near my property:
2011: Encana dumping its waste on the same field as above, enjoy your toast: