Chernobyl in the Gulf of Mexico
by Stuart H. Smith
It’s been more than a year since BP’s runaway Macondo Well began filling the northern waters of the Gulf of Mexico with more than 200 million gallons of sweet crude, fouling shorelines from Louisiana’s marshes to the Florida Panhandle. As our nation’s worst man-made environmental disaster unfolded, it quickly became the lead story of the summer – with photos of oiled birds and video of gushing oil entrancing the American public, and the world.
Yet despite the barrage of around-the-clock coverage and the army of scientists studying the impacts, one of the stories that hasn’t made headlines is that in addition to the crude and toxic dispersants, the spill also released dangerous amounts of radioactive material into the Gulf.
Once the well was capped in mid-July of last year, mainstream media resources and the public were quick to turn away from the disaster and its far-reaching impacts on the environment, marine life, wildlife and, of course, people. Much like the oil itself – strategically sunk to the Gulf floor by BP’s use of the toxic dispersant Corexit – national news coverage of the spill’s effects has largely vanished, although we did see the expected round of first-year anniversary stories.
But still no mention of radioactive material.
The true extent of the spill’s damage is just now beginning to come into view for clean-up workers, commercial fishermen, oil-well workers, charter boat captains, restaurant owners, Gulf Coast denizens and independent scientists studying the effects of the spill – and the fallout becomes more troubling by the day. Independent researchers, like Samantha Joye from the University of Georgia, report that oil coats the Gulf floor where it has decimated deep-water marine life. Residents up and down the Gulf Coast report that tar balls and mats continue to litter their beaches, and re-oilings are common. The multi-billion-dollar Gulf seafood industry is reeling from both small catches and plummeting demand brought on by very real concerns about contamination. Dead dolphins and sea turtles continue to wash ashore at record-breaking rates. Oyster beds have been devastated and are in desperate need of restoration. And perhaps most disturbing of all, increasingly large numbers of clean-up workers and coastal residents are getting sick.
Reports of unexplained health problems are soaring – and the primary suspects are the toxic compounds contained in BP’s oil and the chemical dispersants used to break down the crude. From flu-like symptoms to blindness to intense chest pain to severe sinus inflammation, people across the Gulf region are reporting debilitating illnesses in the wake of the spill.
To determine how the spill may be causing this spike in sicknesses, we need to look at how the toxins are released into the environment.
The production of oil delivers several different waste streams into the environment in an uncontrolled release like the BP disaster. Besides the oil itself, highly toxic compounds are also present in the gas streams jettisoned from the well, including methane and hydrogen sulfide. A waste byproduct known as “produced water” is also simultaneously discharged with the oil and gases from the well. Every oil and gas formation, or reservoir, contains these waste streams.
The toxins associated with these streams can be broken down into three primary categories: (1) organic elements like benzene; (2) inorganic heavy metals including lead, chromium and cadmium; and (3) most important, naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM).
Radioactive elements such as radium, thorium and uranium are known byproducts of the oil production process. These toxic elements are extracted from the ground along with the oil and gas, and are separated from the fossil fuels as part of the production process. Once the NORM is extracted, it is flushed directly back into the ocean in the waste-stream byproduct known as produced water. Their discharge into the Gulf of Mexico has been a daily reality since the 1950s – but the amount that was released into the water from the runaway Macondo Well is unprecedented.
As if NORM exposure from offshore drilling processes wasn’t enough to worry about, the New York Times published a high-profile article in late February (see link below) on the dangers of radioactive exposure onshore from the drilling process known as hydrofracking.
Fracking, as it is commonly called, involves the injection of water and a mixture of highly toxic chemicals into wells to break up rock formations that hold large amounts of natural gas. However, just like the offshore drilling process, the produced-water waste stream created by fracking contains dangerous levels of NORM that can contaminate inland waterways and has even been dumped in water sewage plants in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York. These types of treatment facilities don’t test for radioactivity so there is no way of telling just how much NORM is being mixed directly into drinking water.
The Times also uncovered a bombshell “secret industry study” from the American Petroleum Institute (API). The study, written in 1990, states that consuming seafood from the Gulf of Mexico poses “potentially significant risks” of cancer to humans due to the radium levels in produced water discharges. The EPA has yet to publicly release a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the volume of produced water being discharged in the Gulf of Mexico or its effect on human and marine life.
As someone who has spent the last 20-odd years litigating against the oil and gas industry for damages caused by radioactive oilfield waste, I had serious concerns that the BP spill released a significant amount of NORM into the Gulf. I knew the damage from the radioactive material could be acute and long-lasting to the Gulf ecosystem – and could linger for hundreds of years. Radium-226, a primary component of NORM, has a half-life of 1,600 years (the time it takes for the element to decay to half of its original mass).
In pursuing my hunch that large amounts of NORM were discharged during the nearly three months the oil spewed from the Deepwater Horizon site, I obtained a sample of the oil from the Macondo Well and had it sent to an independent laboratory in the United Kingdom. The results are now in and the presence of a significant quantity of radioactive material has been confirmed by Dr. Chris Busby, a chemical physicist of the U.K.-based environmental watchdog organization Green Audit.
Dr. Busby’s report (see link below) on the laboratory findings suggests that as much as 50 kilograms of uranium, or about 110 pounds, were released into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP spill. According to Dr. Busby, the tests showed the uranium content in the oil to be 0.073 mg/kg, or more than 500 times the normal concentration of uranium in seawater. The Gulf of Mexico is a large body of water but even a small amount of radioactive material can have a devastating impact on life in a marine ecosystem – as well as on humans who are unfortunate enough to come into direct contact with it.
Alarmed by his findings, Dr. Busby warns:
This level of uranium exposure is thousands of times more dangerous than the ICRP (International Commission on Radiological Protection) risk model suggests. We should be very concerned that this material is showing up in an ecosystem with shrimp, crabs, fish, and other animals that humans consume on a daily basis.
The uranium content in the oil is not the only concern, radon gases would also have been present in the methane expelled from the well and significant concentrations of radium-226 and radium-228 would have been present in the produced water discharged from the well. No estimates of these radioactive discharges have been publicly released by BP or the federal government.
To significantly compound the potential human health risks associated with the disaster, the radioactive oil burned off at the water surface resulted in radioactive isotopes becoming airborne. Once airborne, the radioactive particles can be easily inhaled into the human respiratory system. We are unaware of any studies or dose reconstructions that have been done, or will be done, by BP or the federal government to assess the risk from this human exposure pathway.
Dr. Busby explains the health risk:
Uranium is increasingly seen to be a very serious hazard to humans due to its high affinity for genetic material and its ability to trap and amplify natural background gamma radiation at the one place in the body it can do most harm. For this reason, humans have developed responses to uranium ingestion over evolutionary time scales in the form of low absorption from the gut. But humans have never had to deal with uranium inhalation. Once inhaled, uranium can directly enter the brain or pass through the lungs into the lymphatic nodes and blood system, causing the wide range of neurological conditions that were identified as Gulf War syndrome at one extreme and cancer at the other.
Busby said the workers who were closest to the controlled burns of the oil would have been particularly susceptible to radiation exposure.
The physical symptoms of radioactive exposure are very similar to the symptoms produced by exposure to the other toxic compounds in the oil, flu-like symptoms which continue over long periods of time. Specific symptoms from radiation exposure include: neurological problems such as memory loss, headaches and balance problems, even seizures; stomach and digestive problems, such as diarrhea; sweating; dizziness; nosebleeds and bleeding from the ears, rectum and urinary tract; trouble sleeping; and rashes or skin irritations are also be cause for concern.
If any of these symptoms are observed, it is imperative that the person affected seek medical attention as soon as possible. If first contact with a medical professional results in a dismissal of the person’s symptoms, he or she should not be discouraged. Many people across the Gulf region are experiencing similar health problems, and most doctors are not familiar with the effects of chemical or radiation exposure. Affected persons should continue to seek medical help.
Uncontrolled NORM discharges occur on a daily basis during the oil production process in the Gulf of Mexico. While much of the material produced in deeper waters is dispersed into the water column and partitions into smaller concentrations, production in shallower waters produces radioactive material that settles on the ocean floor where it accumulates and comes into direct contact with bottom-feeding marine life. The radioactive elements are consumed by these benthic organisms then work their way back up the food chain to larger animals – and can eventually contaminate humans who consume seafood from the Gulf.
Due to lack of research, little is know about the effects of NORM exposure in the Gulf of Mexico and how it affects ocean life and humans. However, numerous land-based studies have shown that human exposure to even small traces of radioactivity can prove deadly. Radium has a half-life of about 1,600 years while uranium lingers for billions of years. Yes, that’s billions with a “b.” Once the material is introduced into the Gulf ecosystem whatever effect it has, for the most part, it will be permanent.
A white paper authored by radioactive waste experts Marvin Resnikoff, Ph.D and Stanley J. Waligora, Jr. for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) suggests that as much as 6,000 Ci (curie) of radium are released into the Gulf waters by the oil production process every year. Very little regulation and monitoring has been put in place by the EPA or state agencies to assess the amount of radioactive material being discharged into the Gulf.
Of particular concern is the cumulative effect of the radioactive fallout occurring from oil and gas platforms near fragile marine estuaries such as oyster beds. In fact, as the white paper notes, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) doesn’t even require rig owners to test for radioactive material in their produced-water discharge. We really don’t know how bad the problem is, but the cursory data is cause for serious concern. Despite repeated requests, the LDEQ has refused to require the oil and gas industry to pay for an independent environmental impact statement (EIS) to assess the risk inherent in these discharges.
Aside from the human impact, the BP spill is a clarion call to recognize the damage inflicted on the Gulf’s fragile ecosystem for the past half century brought on by the race to, “Drill, baby, Drill!” The coastal ecosystem of Louisiana is a litmus test for states who are considering drilling off their own shores. With possible plans to expand offshore oil production from California to Florida, this isn’t just a Gulf Coast problem, it’s a national and even international problem we all have to face. The mad scramble for offshore, black gold continues unabated around the world despite the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Major offshore installations are either in place or planned for South America, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Arctic Ocean region. The very health of our planet’s oceans is at stake.
Here’s the NYT article on the dangers of fracking: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/us/27gas.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1&ref=usn-oscar-controversy/
See state and federal agency documents on fracking and the associated toxic waste here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/02/27/us/natural-gas-documents-1.html#document/p417/a9945
Dr. Busby’s report on the discharge of radioactive material into the Gulf is here: http://www.scribd.com/full/49647149?access_key=key-1xcpnhn9boiq0tewc6iu
The white paper on produced waters is here: http://leanweb.org/campaigns/produced-waters/produced-waters-white-paper.html
source: Chernobyl in the Gulf of Mexico
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