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What About Radioactive Materials? | Stuart H. Smith

Imagine trying to dump a bunch of potentially radioactive oil waste in a regular municipal landfill without any permits or even testing. Well, that’s exactly what BP is doing as it dumps hazardous oil-drenched waste into landfills around the Gulf.

Exempted from hazardous waste designation by an ’80s-era EPA regulation, the oil company’s waste is being dumped into regular landfills that are not designed for that sort of material. Local jurisdictions, once again, are screaming bloody murder while the U.S. Coast Guard functions as an arm of BP. They are doing this despite the fact that there are licensed facilities that can legally take the waste. It’s just a whole lot cheaper going into a landfill.

As some of you may know, much of my law career has focused on NORM, or naturally occurring radioactive materials. If it becomes exposed or concentrated because of human activities, it’s call “technologically enhanced” or TENORM. Many Americans don’t realize it, but oil can radioactive material like Uranium and Thorium, and different oils have different levels of radioactive material.

Oil companies used to deny that TENORM was all that dangerous, but in fact it has no doubt killed more people than we will ever know. One of my first cases was also one of the first NORM cases, and a jury awarded more than $1 billion to a single victim of Exxon – but, like the stuff left behind from the BP spill, this radiation takes some time to do its damage.

This is all bad enough at the spill and cleanup sites, and it’s not nearly the near-term danger of all the toxins in the oil-dispersant stew. But it can become a danger when you start concentrating it in normal landfills. Remember, oil was exempted from hazmat regulations for political reasons, not because it’s not hazardous.

And, as far as we can tell, nobody is even testing the BP waste going into those landfills and if the oil company knows radiation levels, we can expect them to keep it secret. Hey, this is the company that required a Congressional order and a Federal Court Subpoena just to release video of the spill … we have no way of knowing what else they’re not telling us.

And it’s not comforting that the EPA, which allowed BP to use toxic dispersant to hide the oil and is now minimizing what’s left through bogus science, and the Coast Guard, which allowed dispersant use even in excess of what the EPA approved, are in charge of all this. And the EPA knows better, of course.

This is directly from the EPA website discussing oil drilling activity: “These processes may leave behind waste containing concentrations of naturally-occurring radioactive material (NORM) from the surrounding soils and rocks. Once exposed or concentrated by human activity, this naturally-occurring material becomes Technologically-Enhanced NORM or TENORM. Radioactive materials are not necessarily present in the soils at every well or drilling site. However in some areas of the country, such as the upper Midwest or Gulf Coast states, the soils are more like to contain radioactive material.”

“Radioactive wastes from oil and gas drilling take the form of produced water, drilling mud, sludge, slimes, or evaporation ponds and pits. It can also concentrate in the mineral scales that form in pipes (pipe scale), storage tanks, or other extraction equipment. Radionuclides in these wastes are primarily radium-226, radium-228, and radon gas. The radon is released to the atmosphere, while the produced water and mud containing radium are placed in ponds or pits for evaporation, re-use, or recovery.”

“The people most likely to be exposed to this source of radiation are workers at the site. They may inhale radon gas which is released during drilling and produced by the decay of radium, raising their risk of lung cancer. In addition, they are exposed to alpha and gamma radiation released during the decay of radium-226 and the low-energy gamma radiation and beta particles released by the decay of radium-228. (Gamma radiation can also penetrate the skin and raise the risk of cancer.) Workers following safety guidance will reduce their total on-site radiation exposure.”

It’s time BP comes clean as to the levels and amounts of radioactive material released from this oil spill.

© Smith Stag, LLC 2010 – All Rights Reserved

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