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

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.

DeSmog, By Justin Nobel, Aug 31, 2022 ,

As Bill Torbett and his colleagues went about their work, handling the sloppy radioactive detritus of oilfields in a cavernous building in eastern Ohio, their skin and clothing often became smothered in sludge. Waste was splattered on the floor and walls, even around the electrical panels. At the end of their shifts, they typically left their uniforms in the company washing machine, which didn’t always work, and left their sludge-caked boots and hard hats in the company locker room. But when the men arrived home after a long day, the job came with them too.

“We were literally ankle-deep in sludge and a lot of times knee-deep in different spots. All that shit is dripping down on you,” says Torbett, a 51-year-old former employee of Austin Master Services, a radioactive oilfield waste facility in Martins Ferry, Ohio. “You’re saturated in it, your hands are covered in it, the denim of your uniform would hold it, and the moisture would soak right through your under-clothes and into your skin.”

“How wet?” Torbett says. “Like if you got caught outside in the rain without an umbrella. Soaking wet.”

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.

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 Torbett, who worked at the facility from November 2021 to February 2022. “There was no discussion of the material and its radioactivity.”

In April, DeSmog revealed that Concerned Ohio River Residents, a local advocacy group, had documented elevated levels of radium outside the main entrance to the Austin Master facility, that state inspection reports showed a lengthy history of concerning operating practices, and that rail cars leaving the facility for a radioactive waste disposal site in the Utah desert had arrived leaking on five occasions.

The situation at the Ohio facility appears so severe that top officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 5, which covers much of the Midwest, joined local organizers in a conference call in July and made an in-person visit to the area earlier this month.

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.

Austin Master has not replied to questions regarding the reported radioactivity levels on worker clothing. “There is nothing unusual or harmful about AMS’s process,” Chris Martin, a company spokesperson, told DeSmog in response to questions sent in March regarding work practices at the facility. “Austin Master Services takes a responsible approach to providing valuable waste remediation services and jobs in the Martins Ferry community.” Martin maintained that “there are no known complaints from AMS employees concerning work conditions.”

On July 1, American Energy Partners, a Pennsylvania-based energy and infrastructure services company, acquired Austin Master Services. In a press release, American Energy Partners describes Austin Master as “a full-service, comprehensive environmental services firm specializing in radiological waste management solutions” that provides “professional safety, industrial hygiene and health physics services.” The company has not replied to questions.

The conditions documented by state inspection reports and the contamination revealed by advocacy groups raise questions about the risks to first responders and the community should the Martins Ferry facility have an accident……………………………………

Welcome to the Messy World of Radioactive Oilfield Waste

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. Some of it is converted to liquefied natural gas, or LNG, and shipped overseas to customers in Europe and elsewhere.

Processing radioactive oilfield waste has proven enormously problematic for the oil and gas industry and its regulators, and given rise to a booming service sector of facilities like those run by Austin Master that collect, treat, and process the waste. Part of the problem is that 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. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) does regulate the state’s roughly two dozen oilfield waste processing facilities, but in a limited way. In 2014, Austin Master received an ODNR order, known as a Chief’s Order, giving the company temporary approval to “process, recycle, and treat brine” and other oilfield waste.

At Austin Master’s Martins Ferry facility, Torbett says, trucks regularly dumped the more sludge-like or solid radioactive oilfield waste directly onto the floor of the former steel mill, and workers used common heavy construction equipment like Bobcats to maneuver it into various bins or pits. Waste that was more liquid-like was often dumped into metal containers called half-rounds, says Torbett. In one state inspection photo from August 2018, a worker with bare arms and no face protection or respirator holds a push broom……………………………….

It is work like this that has Massachusetts-based nuclear forensics scientist Dr. Marco Kaltofen deeply concerned about worker health risks. He said any time oilfield waste is moved around in piles at a processing facility such as Austin Master, dust is inevitably created and is likely to contain the radioactive element radium, which is commonly found in oilfield waste..

In addition to dust and wet spatter from the facility’s waste processing practices, Kaltofen voiced worries about the risk of radioactivity exposure to the people interacting with employees outside of work. “Workers’ skin can also become coated with this radioactive material, and either absorb it, or contaminate their families,” he added.

Earlier this year, a second former employee of Austin Master, who prefers to remain anonymous because they still work in the region, provided the boots, hard hat, and headlamp they used while working at the Martins Ferry facility to the organization Concerned Ohio River Residents, members of which have been previously instructed by Kaltofen in how to safely handle such items. The group then sent the worker items along to Kaltofen, who sent sludge from the boots to Eberline Analytical, a radiological analysis lab in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The lab returned the results in May, and they were startling, according to Kaltofen. They showed 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. ………………………………….

“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…………………………..

“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. DeSmog provided NRDC with Eberline Analytical’s analysis of the worker’s clothing. “Based on the data provided,” says Alemayehu, “it appears the radioactivity levels are high enough to cause” exposure risks to the oil and gas workers…………………………….

Raising Red Flags

Concerned Ohio River Residents, which received the clothing items from the former worker and sampled the soil on the public road outside the facility, has long been worried about the risks the Austin Master facility posed to workers and the community at large and is in touch with a number of former workers. In mid-August, members of the group toured officials with EPA Region 5 around the area, including a drive-by of the Austin Master facility in Martins Ferry.

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. ………………………………

Meanwhile Ohio regulatory agencies appear to be equally hamstrung in their ability to manage or even systematically assess the situation. ………………………………

Industry workers and residents across the Marcellus and Utica shale tell DeSmog it is this general tone of dismissal and inaction from regulators that has them feeling aggravated when it comes to oilfield radioactivity and its harms………………………

DeSmog presented the Health Physics Society with information and documents concerning the situation at Austin Master, but the group has not replied to questions.

…………………………………. fixing this issue in the United States goes beyond just personal protective equipment and straight to lawmakers, says Amy Mall, a senior advocate at NRDC. “We need Congress to act to end the dangerous oil and gas loopholes in our federal laws, including the gap for naturally occurring radioactive materials,” says Mall. “In addition, we urge the EPA to investigate this situation and other oil and gas waste sites around the country, and to revise its rules to reflect current knowledge about the risks to human health and the environment.”…………………………

While Waiting for Governments to Act, Citizens Are Stepping in

In July, Concerned Ohio River Residents and other Ohio advocacy groups sent a letter about Austin Master to EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

“We have identified environmental justice and human rights abuse under President Biden’s Executive Order 13985,” the letter stated. “Understanding your values and heavy emphasis on pushing for environmental justice, we call upon the United States Environmental Protection Agency to address disproportionately high and adverse health and environmental impacts on low-income populations here in Appalachia…We call upon your Office to investigate these issues because no other governmental or regulatory agency is stepping up.”……………………………. https://www.desmog.com/2022/08/31/worker-radioactive-waste-austin-master-services-ohio/

September 2, 2022 - Posted by | employment, health, wastes

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