Ohio Radioactive Waste Remediation Facility Back in the News

HEADLINE: Radioactive Waste ‘Everywhere’ at Ohio Oilfield Facility, Says Former Worker

Justin Nobel writes in DeSmog on August 31, 2022 that “Community groups present health and environmental justice concerns to the EPA, alleging workers at Austin Master Services are coated in dangerous levels of radioactive waste.”

In fact, so alarming are the conditions at Austin Master and so lax is the oversight that workers have taken things into their own hands. In one case, a second former worker has covertly passed along their dirty boots, hard hat, and headlamp for independent radiological analysis. The levels of the radioactive element radium found in the sludge on this worker’s boots was about 15 times federal cleanup limits for the nation’s worst toxic waste sites.

Radioactive Waste ‘Everywhere’ at Ohio Oilfield Facility, Says Former Worker | Justin Nobel | DeSmog | August 31, 2022

And yet, Austin Master appeared to keep workers in the dark about what they were handling. “They really didn’t tell me the gist of the material, I just knew it came from frack sites,” according to Bill Torbett, who worked at the facility from November 2021 to February 2022. “There was no discussion of the material and its radioactivity.” The state of Ohio has authorized Austin Master Services to receive 120 million pounds of radioactive oilfield waste at its Martins Ferry location each year.

Radioactive Waste ‘Everywhere’ at Ohio Oilfield Facility, Says Former Worker | Justin Nobel | DeSmog | August 31, 2022

The Austin Master facility is located in a former steel mill on the Ohio River, not far from the city of Martins Ferry’s drinking water wells and the football stadium of the local high school team, the Purple Riders. Austin Master receives truckloads of drill cuttings bored out of the Marcellus and Utica shale and of radioactive sludge that forms at the bottom of tanks and trucks that hold toxic liquids brought to the surface of fracked oil and gas wells. Right now, more than a third of America’s natural gas supply comes from wells in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. A significant amount of oilfield waste is too radioactive to be shipped directly to traditional landfills. Instead, it must be “down-blended,” or mixed with material like lime or a corn cob base to lower the radioactive signature.

Radioactive Waste ‘Everywhere’ at Ohio Oilfield Facility, Says Former Worker | Justin Nobel | DeSmog | August 31, 2022

Earlier this year, a second former employee of Austin Master provided the boots, hard hat, and headlamp they used while working at the Martins Ferry facility to the organization Concerned Ohio River Residents. The lab returned the results in May, and they were startling, showing levels of radium-226 at 76.3 picocuries per gram, and levels of another form of radium common in oilfield waste, radium-228, at 8.66 picocuries per gram. This placed the radioactivity values at roughly 15 times EPA cleanup limits for topsoil at uranium mills and Superfund sites.

Roughly 15 times EPA cleanup limits for topsoil at uranium mills and Superfund sites

Reporter Justin Nobel on desmog

“Radium is commonly referred to as a bone seeker,” states a report of the National Research Council Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiations. If accidentally inhaled or ingested, the radioactive element tends to accumulate in the bones, where it continues emitting radiation and can lead to cancer.

Despite the dangers this type of oil and gas waste poses, a 1980 provision enacted by Congress has deemed it non-hazardous and therefore exempt from federal rules that would otherwise apply to hazardous waste.

Radioactive Waste ‘Everywhere’ at Ohio Oilfield Facility, Says Former Worker | Justin Nobel | DeSmog | August 31, 2022

“These results are alarming and it signifies the need for appropriate radiation protection measures in the oil and gas workplace,” adds Bemnet Alemayehu, a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) staff scientist with a PhD in radiation health physics and co-author of a 2021 report on this issue:

EXCERPTS FROM THE 2021 NRDC report:

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