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Episode 5: The Radioactive Crisis of Oil and Gas Waste

Most people know that oil and gas emits air pollution. But few people understand that these wells also produce radioactive waste. That’s right — radioactive. Melissa Troutman, co-founder of the investigative news nonprofit Public Herald and co-director of three documentary films between 2013-2020, tells us why the climate threat of oil and gas is not bad enough.

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Episode Guest

Melissa Troutman is an award-winning filmmaker, investigative journalist, frontline resident, and environmental justice advocate. In 2011, Melissa co-founded the investigative nonprofit Public Herald where she spent a decade exposing oil and gas corruption, the dangers of oil and gas waste, and the government policies perpetuating systemic harm to environmental and public health. In 2019, she received a Community Sentinel Award honoring her dedication to communities and ecosystems on the frontlines of oil and gas extraction. Currently she serves as the Climate & Energy Advocate at WildEarth Guardians. Her latest documentary is “Lake Erie, Our Kin” for the PBS WQLN program Chronicles.

Episode Transcript

Miguel Escoto: January of 2020, Rolling Stone published an article by journalist Justin Noble. This is how the article opens: 

In 2014, a muscular, middle aged Ohio man named Peter took a job trucking waste for the oil and gas industry. The hours were long. He was out the door by 3 a.m. every morning and not home until well after dark. But the steady $16 an hour pay was appealing, says Peter, who asked to use a pseudonym. This is a poverty area, he says of his home in the state’s rural southeast corner. Throw a little money at us and by God we’ll jump and take it. 

In a squat rig fitted with a 5,000 gallon tank, Peter criss crosses the expanse of farms and woods near the Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania border, the heart of a region that produces close to a third of America’s natural gas. He hauls a salty substance called “brine,” a naturally occurring waste product that gushes out of America’s oil and gas wells to the tune of nearly 1 trillion gallons a year, enough to flood Manhattan, almost shin high, every single day. At most wells, far more brine is produced than oil or gas, as much as ten times more. It collects in tanks and like an oil and gas garbage man, Peter picks it up and hauls it off to treatment plants or injection wells where it is disposed of by being shot back into the earth. 

The Earth’s crust is, in fact, peppered with radioactive elements that concentrate deep underground in oil and gas, burying layers. This radioactivity is often pulled to the surface when oil and gas is extracted, carried largely in the brine.

In the popular imagination, radioactivity conjures images of nuclear meltdowns, but radiation is emitted from many common natural substances, usually presenting a fairly minor risk. Many industry representatives like to say that radioactivity and brine is so insignificant as to be on par with what would be found in a banana or a granite countertop. So when Peter demanded his supervisor tell him what he was being exposed to, his concerns were brushed off.

The liquid in his tanks was no more radioactive than, quote, any room in your home, he was told. But Peter wasn’t so sure. Quote, “A lot of guys are coming up with cancer or sores or skin lesions that take months to heal,” he says. Peter experiences regular headaches and nausea, numbness in his fingertips and face and, quote, joint pain like fire.

He says he wasn’t given any safety instructions on radioactivity. And while he is required to wear steel toed boots, safety glasses, a hard hat and clothes with a flash resistant coating, he isn’t required to wear a respirator or a dosimeter to measure his radioactivity exposure. And the rest of the uniform hardly offers protection from brine. Quote, “It’s all over your hands and inside your boots and on the cuticles of your toes and any cuts you have, you are soaked,” he says.

So, Peter started quietly taking samples of the brain he hauled, filling up old antifreeze containers and soda bottles. Eventually, he packed a shed in his backyard with more than 40 samples. He worried about further contamination, but says for him, quote, the damage is already done. He wanted answers. Quote, I cover my ass, he says. Ten or 15 years down the road, if I get sick, I want to be able to prove this. Through a grassroots network of Ohio activists, Peter was able to transfer 11 samples of brine to the Center of Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University, which had them tested in a lab at the University of Pittsburgh. The results were striking. Radium, typically the most abundant radionuclide in brine, is often measured in picocuries per liter of substance and is so dangerous it’s subject to tight regulations, even at hazardous waste sites.

The most common isotopes are radium 226 and radium 228, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires industrial discharges to remain below 60 for each. Four of Peter’s samples registered combined radium levels above 3,500 and one was more than 8,500. Quote, It’s ridiculous that these drivers are not being told what’s in their trucks, says John Stoltz, Duquesne’s environmental center director. And this stuff is on every corner. It is in neighborhoods. Truckers don’t know they’re being exposed to radioactive waste, nor are they being provided with protective clothing. Breathing in this stuff and ingesting it are the worst types of exposure. Stoltz continues. You are irradiating your tissues from the inside out. The radioactive particles fired off by radium can be blocked by the skin, but radium readily attaches to dust, making it easy to accidentally inhale or ingest.

Once inside the body, its insidious effects accumulate with each exposure. It is known as a bone seeker because it can be incorporated into the skeleton and cause bone cancers such as sarcoma. It also decays into a series of other radioactive elements called daughters. The first one for radium 226 is radon, a radioactive gas, and the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. Radon has also been linked to chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Quote, Every exposure results in an increased risk, says Ian Fairlight, a British radiation biologist. Quote, Think of it like these guys have been given negative lottery tickets and somewhere down the line their number will come up and they will die. 

Peter’s samples are just a drop in the bucket. Oil fields across the country from the Bakken in North Dakota to the Permian in Texas have been found to produce brine that is highly radioactive. All oil field workers, says Fairlight, are radiation workers, but they don’t necessarily know it. Tanks, filters, pumps, pipes, hoses and trucks that brine touches can all become contaminated with the radium building up into hardened scale, concentrating to as high as 400,000 picocuries per gram. With fracking, which involves sending pressurized fluid deep underground to break up layers of shale, there is dirt and shattered rock called drill cuttings that can also be radioactive.

But brine can be radioactive, whether it comes from fracked or conventional well. The levels vary depending on the geological formation, not drilling method. Colorado and Wyoming seem to have lower radioactive signatures, while the Marcellus Shale underlying Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York has tested the highest. Radium in its brain can average around 9300 typical curies per liter but it has been recorded as high as 28,500. Quote, If I had a beaker of that on my desk and accidentally dropped it on the floor, they would shut the place down, says Yuri Gorby, a microbiologist who spent 15 years studying radioactivity with the Department of Energy. Quote, And if I dumped it down the sink, I would go to jail.


MIguel Escoto: Welcome back to the show. As promised, these next couple of episodes will focus on the radioactive waste crisis caused by oil and gas industry. Similar to how fossil fuels harm the climate and damage our health by polluting our shared air, the fossil fuel industry also pollutes our water with highly toxic chemicals as part of the oil and gas production process. We will explore these dynamics in the next couple of episodes. First off, I’ll interview Melissa Troutman. Melissa is a journalist, writer, editor, filmmaker and vocal artist. She co-wrote an Earthworks report on oil and gas waste in Texas called “Wasted in the Lone Star” and is currently executive director of the nonprofit investigative journalists organization Public Herald. Here’s my conversation with her.

Welcome, Melissa, to this podcast. We’re really excited to have you here to talk to us about oil and gas waste. Many people don’t consider waste when we’re talking about oil and gas. But as we’re going to talk about, it’s a very important component of this industry and its community impacts. So starting with the basics here, could you provide us with a brief summary of what oil and gas waste looks like?

Melissa Troutman: Sure. Yeah. And thank you, Miguel, for having me on. It’s always good to chat with you. It’s been a while. So thank you. And I cannot say that it’s always good to talk about oil and gas waste, but very important nonetheless. So what does oil and gas waste look like? Well, there’s what oil and gas waste looks like, and then there’s what it actually is, which is an important distinction, because sometimes that looks benign, but it’s not, right? And so I’ll kind of break this up into two kinds of waste. One is the leftover materials from performing the job itself. So, equipment like pipes and tanks and stuff like that. And then there’s the waste material that is produced by the extraction process itself. And that’s the waste that does not exist until you drill or frack something. Right? So let’s start with the stuff that performs the job. Mostly equipment like pipes, drills and tanks. These are made out of metal or plastic that look like equipment you’d see at any kind of other industrial site. Except that because they have oil and gas, especially shale oil and gas, flowing through them or stored in them they are not as benign as you might think. And then there’s the waste produced from the job itself by the extraction process. And this is the waste that’s produced in various forms from solid to liquid, along with the kind of sludgy or muddy stuff in between. And that basically comes from when you drill into the earth, you create solid waste that comes from the rock and dirt from actually bringing it to the surface – that’s pretty standard. Except because it’s a part of oil and gas extraction as opposed to something like geothermal or water well drilling, it involves going down miles into the earth, into places where there’s heavy metals and radioactive material that’s naturally occurring and that’s in the bedrock, and that stuff comes back to the surface as part of the oil and gas extraction process. You also have to drill through aquifers, subterranean pockets of water, and at depths they contain a lot of salts and other toxins. Again, heavy metals and radioactive materials, just like the rock does. And this all comes up out of the well as liquid waste because it’s mixed. It’s mixed with fractured rock and also the drilling muds that are used to lubricate the drill bit. And those muds are often petroleum based and they can contain chemicals that just keep the whole operation running smoothly. 

Miguel Escoto: Right. 

Melissa Troutman: And then comes the fracking process. And this is where the majority of liquid waste is coming from. Each frac job requires milk, tons of gallons of water. They mix chemicals and silica sand with it. And after it’s forced down a well at incredibly high pressure, most of this liquid comes back to the surface as wastewater. Okay. And it looks like muddy water or sometimes it does. It’s not even that muddy. And it kind of looks like it, but it looks like dirty water. Right 

Miguel Escoto: Right. 

Melissa Troutman: And then finally, the oil and gas. When oil and gas waste is treated prior to disposal, which isn’t often in Texas, it’s allowed to be spread on the land and dumped into rivers without treatment. But when it is treated for disposal, it’s concentrate… the toxins are taken out and concentrated into sludges and those sludges then have to go somewhere. They have to be disposed of, too. And then there’s actually one more type of oil and gas waste that is particularly dangerous. And so I want to talk about it by itself, and that is pipe scale. That is literally the buildup of radioactive scale inside of the pipes used at oil and gas facilities. And this is the stuff that has led to the biggest court cases on behalf of oil and gas workers who have developed cancer as a result of exposure to pipe scale and dust on the job. So that’s a breakdown of the waste types and all of them, every single one can contain toxic levels of the contaminants like carcinogens, radioactive materials, heavy metals, hydrocarbons and then, of course, the undisclosed secret fracking chemicals that companies still don’t have to tell us about.

Miguel Escoto: Yikes. Well, thank you for that breakdown. You said radioactive, which to many listeners is kind of sounding some alarm bells because the public generally doesn’t associate oil and gas with radioactivity. And we’re going to go deeper into how those two are connected. But you mentioned that a huge part of this waste that is unleashed, right, that is just chilling underground and we just kind of unleash it as part of the fracking process. I mean, it seems like the advent of fracking as a process to extract oil and gas was a fundamental shift in the industry. 

Melissa Troutman: Hmm. Absolutely.

Miguel Escoto: So one might this might lead one to think that this change is reflected in waste policy and regulation. So tell us, Melissa, how did the government’s definition of, quote, hazardous waste shift with the development of fracking?

Melissa Troutman: Well, it didn’t. 

Miguel Escoto: Plot twist. 

Melissa Troutman: Yeah that so the government definition of hazardous waste hasn’t changed for the oil and gas industry in decades, despite the freakish addition of modern fracking, which produces all this more waste. Right?

Miguel Escoto: Exactly.

Melissa Troutman: So the way that this works is that the oil and gas industry has not had to comply with hazardous waste law since the 1980s, and that is when industry lobbyists managed to convince the feds that it was unnecessary and duh duh duh… too expensive for them to apply hazardous waste rules to their hazardous waste. So long story short, in 1988, the EPA finished a study that Congress told it to do. And in their conclusion, which is true to crony capitalism form, the EPA found that even though the oil and gas companies do create multiple streams of hazardous waste, they don’t have to follow federal hazardous regulations because it presented an economic burden. Now, let’s just key in on the economic burden for a second, because, you know, if I was going to go dig a hole in the ground, put a bunch of stuff in there, bring a bunch of nasty stuff out and like, it would be my responsibility and just part of doing my business to properly manage that waste.

Miguel Escoto: Cost of doing business.

Melissa Troutman: Exactly… like to properly deal with the waste that you generate during normal business practices is a cost of doing business. It’s not an economic burden any more than anything else extraneous might be. But the industry has not had to pay this cost of doing business for over 30 years. Instead, that improperly managed waste and all of its hazardous risk is pushed off in the public in ways that are not at all transparent.

Like you mentioned, most people don’t know about oil and gas waste… the oil and gas industry, not just the waste, but the industry is radioactive. And a lot of people don’t know that — that’s not an accident. So what happens is the stuff ends up in communities without people even knowing it. Because even though the feds said, back when they exempted the industry in 1988 from federal hazardous waste law, the feds said, well, you know, this is actually a state issue and individual states do have the authority to create their own hazardous waste rules. And they do. But, instead of creating hazardous waste rules for the oil and gas industry, the state just followed the federal lead and exempted the industry at the local levels, which means that it created a nation wide exemption for the oil and gas industry. Nowhere in the United States has the industry had to comply by the same hazardous waste rules that everyone else does and that end is that loophole exists to this very day, except in New York state. New York is an anomaly here because we finally got New York state to close its hazardous waste loophole for oil and gas in 2020. And there’s also legislation proposed in Pennsylvania to close the hazardous waste loophole in Pennsylvania as well. But so far, it’s not gained the legislative support to make it law. Because like Texas, Pennsylvania is a major oil and gas state. Pennsylvania is number two in the nation behind Texas for oil and gas production. So, you know, that shows in the legislature, you know, it’s not…

Miguel Escoto: They’re paying attention. 

Melissa Troutman: Yeah. Every election season, the campaign, the industry puts money all the way down both sides of the aisle. So.

Miguel Escoto: Exactly.

Melissa Troutman: Yeah. But I think it’s important to note that because Texas is the largest oil and gas producer, they’re also the biggest producer of the waste. And so the failure to apply hazardous waste law to the oil and gas industry is a bigger crime in Texas than anywhere else because everything’s bigger in Texas, right?

Miguel Escoto: Unfortunately, sometimes that means increased probability of cancer. Unfortunately, but no. Yeah, it’s interesting that they I mean, this isn’t the only legislative space where the federal government basically says, oh, states do whatever you want. And that translates to communities are suffering. Because, as you mentioned, regulation… The regulation of this waste is not the same in Pennsylvania and Texas as compared to, I don’t know, Rhode Island, right? So can you tell us exactly how the public is forced with the burden of paying for this cost of business?

Melissa Troutman: Sure. Yeah. I mean, what a loophole really is, is an exemption for industry, but it’s an exemption for industry to do regular practice, regular cost of business. But it’s more than just about the companies saving money. It’s about who is actually forced to pay because somebody is always picking up the tab. And if it’s not the industry, then it’s obviously someone else. So who is it? And it’s the public. It’s always the public. So instead of keeping waste expenses inside the industry, governments have let industry shift that responsibility on to the public and therefore turned it into an actual burden, because frontline communities bear that burden in the form of pollution and illness and then the taxpayer bears that burden in the form of cleanup costs. Because when industry isn’t made to properly deal with this toxic stuff when it’s first created, the government ends up using our tax dollars to clean it up years later.

Miguel Escoto: So, as we’ve been discussing, the industry wants us to not associate radioactive waste with oil and gas development. So that’s what this podcast episode is about, uncovering that. Can you speak on exactly how radioactive radioactive waste shows up in this oil and gas extraction?

Melissa Troutman: Sure. So just like the industry knew for a very long time about its impact on the climate and then hid that, it has also done the same thing with the fact that it is a radioactive industry. So the presence of radioactive elements in oil and gas waste and in the industry as a whole has been documented for decades by the industry itself, by the government. And they’ve both repeatedly stated, despite the evidence, that the levels present are not of concern. So you have the science and then you have the PR. 

Miguel Escoto: Sounds familiar.

Melissa Troutman: Yes. This is all the same playbook, right? Just over and over. So a lot of this evidence, of course, has been unearthed by investigative journalists such as Justin Noble and then our team over at Public Herald. And what these investigations have revealed is that A) the industry has known about the real risks of radioactivity within its own industry for decades, and B) There is a direct link between radioactivity on the job and cancer in oil and gas workers. We all know this. We know this all to be true. Okay.

Miguel Escoto: Right. 

Melissa Troutman: In fact, in 1982. So how many years ago is that? 30? 40? 

Miguel Escoto: Right. That’s 40 years.

Melissa Troutman: Forty years ago, the American Petroleum Institute commissioned a report. And that report found that and I quote, almost all materials of interest and use in the petroleum industry contain measurable quantities of radionuclide that reside in processing equipment, product streams themselves, in the actual oil and gas, and in the waste. They also found that groundwater used for brine solution for operating wells and such also contains significantly… significant quantities of radium 226 and radon 222 in particular. Now I want to talk about those two in particular. There are many types of radio, nasty radio isotopes in oil and gas waste. But let’s just talk about these two for a moment. 

Miguel Escoto: Let’s do it.

Melissa Troutman: So radium 226 is a cancer-causing, it’s known to cause cancer in humans. And it has a half life of 1600 years. Which means, of course, that when you put it somewhere, it stays there forever. Unless it’s moved somehow. And where it’s repeatedly applied, such as on roads or in fields or in landfills, it accumulates over that time and gets hotter and hotter. So let’s take Texas landfills, for instance, in order for oil and gas waste to go to a municipal landfill in Texas, it cannot have any more than 30 picocuries per gram of radioactive material in it. So 30 is the magic number and honestly, 30 is a decent number in terms of safety per load. But here’s the problem. But here’s the problem. They’re not taking a single load and dumping in a landfill or taking load after load after load after load. And so what happens when you pile all of that at only 30 picocuries per load? What happens when you pile all of that up in the same place? It just sits there and accumulates because it breaks down right above 1600 years. Right now, some landfills will have an annual threshold, which means theoretically, they can only take so much of a radioactive substance per year. But here’s the other problem. The testing in Texas in particular, the testing has very little and in some cases, no actual oversight. So it’s a number on paper, but it doesn’t translate to real life, right? It’s not guaranteed anyway.

Miguel Escoto: Sounds like the air pollution system, right. Where they.. they fail to take all of these different pieces in the context of the whole and… No yeah, this is similar like we’re talking how the industry uses the same playbook. This is just reminding me of the government using their same playbook of just justifying this waste in… in a… in something that might sound good on paper, but in reality on the ground is dangerous.

Melissa Troutman: That’s absolutely right. And even on paper, Miguel, it’s not… it’s not enough. It’s not strong enough. Like for example, nowhere on paper does it say that regulators should look at the total number of sites that are positioned over a certain aquifer. I mean, even if you have an annual threshold at a particular landfill, what if there’s three landfills overtop of the aquifer? Like you said, they are not assessing or regulating the cumulative effect of any of this shit, whether it’s waste, or methane, or anything. And to be honest, that is – I think – that is by design.

Miguel Escoto: Of course. Yeah no.

Melissa Troutman: But that’s… That’s probably a different podcast. 

Miguel Escoto: Yeah. No, it’s yeah, it’s like… it’s this perfect profit guaranteeing system for them, right? So… um… radium 226 sounds horrifying. How about radium 222?

Melissa Troutman: Okay. Well, so radium 226 is found in contaminated soil and water. Water as well because radium 226 is water soluble, so it makes it into water. Radium 222. I’m sorry. Radon 222. Is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas. Okay, so we’re talking about air here, of course. Or in water where it’s trapped in water, but it’s a radioactive gas and it has a half life of almost four days, which doesn’t sound like much until you’re the person who’s living next to the oil and gas facility that’s off gassing the stuff every few days. Right. So all of these things persist, these radioisotopes persist in the human body. They collect in tissue and bone and they cause cancer. And to be clear, you know, in Texas, waste is also buried on site. And so even if waste is not buried on site, every oil and gas site, every well site, every compressor station, every pipeline, every single oil and gas state contains toxic materials. So it’s a waste site. Every single oil and gas is a waste site, some of which can be quite radioactive. And so how… again, how do we know these things? There are many studies in lawsuits, as many of many lawsuits are on behalf of oil and gas workers at this stage who got cancer and other diseases from exposures on the job. There’s a lot of studies about those living in close proximity to oil and gas sites, having a host of elevated diseases and illnesses. And a lot of these studies are cited in Earthworks’ report on waste, oil and gas waste management in Texas, which is called “Wasted in the Lone Star State.” I co-authored this — full disclosure. But if you go, if anybody can go to that and see, go to the radioactivity section, starts on page nine, and get direct access to those studies themselves.

Miguel Escoto: Great report. Highly recommend to the listeners. So… yikes. This sounds really bad. Especially how it affects oil and gas workers as well. 

Melissa Troutman: Mm hmm. 

Miguel Escoto: I mean, you mentioning that every oil and gas site is toxic is also reminding me of the aerial view of the Permian Basin. If you drive over, if you fly over the Permian Basin, if you see even on Google Maps, all of the acres and acres and acres of patches of oil and gas sites, it puts it into perspective that the climate is a huge, huge point of concern. But once you add this element of waste consideration, it just makes it so much worse. And it makes the conclusion very clear that we need to stop drilling, we need to stop producing… off ramp into cleaner forms of energy.

Melissa Troutman: Yeah. As if the climate crisis is not… the climate threat of oil and gas is not bad enough, the legacy pollution. I mean, as we’re especially frontline communities are dealing with the climate impacts and the immediate exposure impacts we’re all, especially frontline and fenceline communities, are going to be dealing with the legacy pollution and the, you know, a big part of which is the radioactivity which persists. It’s a… for you know, people talk about the PSAF chemicals being forever chemicals. That’s what radium is. That’s what radium 226 is. And it’s every single oil and gas site that ever existed. 3327

Miguel Escoto: So can you tell us about how the Texas Railroad Commission responds to all of this? What do they think?

Melissa Troutman: Well, I can tell you, after writing this report, we sit in the Lone Star State. I was actually not that familiar with regulations in Texas until I wrote that report. I mean, I was familiar, of course, with the regulations in other states and in the national paradigm, which is that the industry be exempt and poorly tracked and that regulators are in bed with companies and there’s a revolving door between the two. But the Texas Railroad Commission in particular, is atrocious when it comes to accountability. And here’s a good example. Okay. So while I was writing “Wasted in the Lone Star State” it just so happened that an industry insider contacted me and he was like, Are you going to be writing about Texas? And I said, Funny you mentioned that. I actually am. And he said, Okay, well, you might want to know about this site in West Texas that is taking radioactive waste from the industry, but it’s also not just taking waste from companies here in the U.S. it’s importing radioactive oilfield waste from other countries. And this is the first time I’d ever heard about this. So, basically, there’s a site in West Texas that was discovered to take… they were taking oilfield waste from Australia all the way from Australia. Okay. That, when tested, showed levels of radioactivity over 400 times the legal limit for uranium mills which make nuclear bomb fuel. 

Miguel Escoto: Yikes. 

Melissa Troutman: Which as you know, it is really bad and very radioactive. So 400 times over that legal limit for those places. That’s what was sitting in West Texas to this day. And the Railroad Commission knows about this. They’ve been out to inspect that site several times. And as far as I know as of the report, which was written April 2021, so just over a year ago, the Texas Railroad Commission had not found any violations at that facility, even though that industry insider sent me photos which are published in the report. Which are disgusting. I mean, the stuff is being held barely… when it… when it’s not like the barrels aren’t knocked over spilling on the ground, they’re being held in really rusty, holy, disintegrated storage bins and that and they all have radioactive stickers on them, but they’re clearly not in a state of…

Miguel Escoto: Proper management. 

Melissa Troutman: So we have the visual evidence, we have the lab analysis. And still the railroad commission says no violations.

Miguel Escoto: That says a lot about their priorities and how much they care about people’s health. This is the Lotus L.L.C. scenario, right? 

Melissa Troutman: Yes. 

Miguel Escoto: Awesome. So we’re going to talk in depth about that particular saga later on in the podcast. Before we get there, I did want to ask you a little bit more about the relationship between fracking and water usage. So yeah, how does that look like? Is there a lot of water? Is it not too much water? What are we looking at here?

Melissa Troutman: It’s a lot of water. It’s both a lot of freshwater that is permanently contaminated in order to extract oil and natural gas. And it’s also a lot of wastewater. So in the oil and gas fields, you’ll hear this term produced water.

Miguel Escoto: Produced water sounds nice and benign and innocent.

Melissa Troutman: What do you think of when you hear the word water? It’s an awesome thing, right? And if it’s being produced, it’s like, oh, it’s like Nestlé. They’re making bottled water. No. Produced water is the term used to describe the really toxic chemical laced, radioactive liquid waste that’s produced from oil and gas extraction. And despite the fact that Texas produces more of it than anywhere else, Texas doesn’t know how much it totally produces because they don’t track it. Again, there’s a theme here. Right.

Miguel Escoto: Like methane, right. 

Melissa Troutman: So the total volume of oil and gas wastewater is unknown. And when… Because when we asked the Railroad Commission for the total amounts, they didn’t know. They said, well, volumes are reported on individual permits, but we don’t add all that up, you know. So, okay.

Miguel Escoto: Why should they? They don’t care.

Melissa Troutman: But here’s where it gets easy for us. Right? Because what we do know is that in Texas, about six barrels of liquid waste or wastewater is produced per barrel of oil. It’s a 6 to 1 ratio.

Miguel Escoto: Wow.

Melissa Troutman: So what do you do? Like back to the envelope map, which we did for the year of 2019. We found that in 2019 alone, Texas oil and gas companies produced over 26 million gallons of liquid wastewater every day. So what does that look like? That’s like 39 Olympic sized swimming pools of toxic wastewater every single day. So every fracked well requires millions and millions of gallons of water to frack. And most of that, that’s pumped down the hole, ends up coming back up. So that’s where all of this stuff is coming from, right. It’s not all coming up from natural water deposits underground. They are taking water, pumping it down the hole, mixing with chemicals. And then most of it’s coming back up. And then it has to go somewhere.

Miguel Escoto: So before I ask you where that goes, I will mention we track the level of production… We track it a lot. And in the Permian alone… Well well, you mentioned that figure, which was from 2019. And unfortunately, it’s worse now because I mean, since 2019, the amount of oil and gas that’s been produced is increasing. And in the Permian alone, we’re at 5 million higher than Trump levels. So just to emphasize once again that the more we produce oil and gas, the more of this toxic water we have to deal with. So, yeah, Melissa, can you let us know where they put all of this?

Melissa Troutman: Sure. I think to add on to your last point, though, it’s important to recognize that even when fracking stops, when they stop fracking new well… drilling and fracking new wells, the wells that already exist still produce this waste for decades. It still slowly comes up throughout the life of a well. And so if we ban fracking tomorrow, we still have to deal with the waste issue as a manner of transitioning to a different system.

So where does it go? Well, it goes to a lot of places in Texas. You can discharge it to a stream. You can spread it over land and you can inject it underground. Now, in the industry, to be fair, the industry does reuse a fraction of its liquid waste for more fracking, but it still has to add fresh water to that in order to get it to a solution that they can use. So, a huge amount of Texas’ waste gets injected underground. So when… and when an injection well, Texas has a ton of injection wells. And it’s the preferred method of dealing with the liquid waste in particular. But injection wells can leak, and when they leak underground, it contaminates underground. It contaminates the soil and contaminates any nearby groundwater supplies. And then, of course, water moves through the ground so the contamination can be taken away from the site via groundwater movement. And of course, when an injection well blows at the surface, it sprays and spills it everywhere. And when the earth you’re pumping it into doesn’t hold that material like you think it’s going to it can also create seismic activity. And the increase in earthquakes across some parts of Texas have been linked to oil and gas waste disposal at injection wells sites.

Miguel Escoto: Well, well, just just to add to that, the day before this interview yesterday, June 1st, 2022, there were five earthquakes in one day in the Permian Basin. Two of them were over 4.0. And yes, so this is… This is kind of like a vicious cycle, isn’t it? Like the more you inject, the more it increases seismic activity, the more it poses a harm for our water sources.

Melissa Troutman: And they’re running…. They’ve been running out of injection well capacity for years. They have way more waste than they have places to put it. And yet the…. And the state still issues more and more new permits, despite the fact that they don’t have the capacity in place to deal with the waste on the other side of it.

Miguel Escoto: Well we’ve, we’ve talked about how Texas is particularly horrifying, particularly egregious. To round out this, this interview, Melissa, can you tell us about aquifers? How is Texas specifically and especially horrifying when it comes to aquifers?

Melissa Troutman: Right. So, another aspect of oil and gas waste that’s unique to Texas, in addition to the fact that Texas is the biggest, is the number of groundwater aquifers that companies are allowed to inject their waste into in Texas. So companies are actually allowed to pump their toxic and radioactive waste into groundwater aquifers. And once they do…

Miguel Escoto: Mind blowing, especially in the southwest. Especially in that area that is drought ridden. I mean, it’s. Yeah. Pausing there for a second to appreciate how ridiculous that is.

Melissa Troutman: Yes. As that region in particular struggles with water supply for things like drinking or irrigation for agriculture… Why is the industry still allowed to intentionally poison groundwater aquifers? It is absolute neurosis. It’s insanity…

Miguel Escoto: Yeah no. Jeez.

Melissa Troutman: And so in Texas… there and once it once you pump it in, it’s done. It’s poisoned. Right. In Texas, there are over – now  This is years. This is… this is me running the numbers four years ago now. Okay. So, yeah. Or, I’m sorry. One year ago. But the data that I ran was actually old data. Because they don’t update it very often. So in Texas, there are over at least 2,800 groundwater aquifers that are used for oil and gas waste disposal. And of course, that’s more than any other state in the nation, because everything’s bigger in Texas. But think about that for a second. Over 2,800 groundwater aquifers that can never be used because we’ve dumped oil and gas poisoned down into them.

Miguel Escoto: And like you said, this is not like an industry accident that they wish they could have avoided. No, they’re intentionally doing this, as in their minds, legitimate.

Melissa Troutman: This is legal practice. Except when it’s illegal. Which, I’ll tell you another little story. So there was a 2016 investigation that revealed that the Railroad Commission didn’t even know where all these exempt aquifers were. They didn’t even know all the places oil and gas was pumping poison into aquifers. Okay. And so that’s bad. Not great, Railroad Commission. Like, maybe do your job a little better. But another report in 2017 showed that Texas regulators, even when they knew about these operations, they were letting oil and gas waste be injected into aquifers illegally without proper oversight and that 2017 investigation found — the EPA found 54 aquifers. But that’s I mean, they found 54 that were injected it illegally that RRC didn’t know about. They didn’t require the company to go through the proper, proper protocols. But yeah, there are a few things in the oil and gas industry that are more insane than that particular piece. At the systemic level in the United States corporations have constitutional rights. And every time a community tries to say no, they are often sued by a corporation for trying to protect themselves. And the corporation uses, as its justification and legal standing, its constitutional right to do basically whatever the F it wants to do. So until the environmental nonprofit world does something about the fact that that constitutional right to poison us exists, we’re going to be running a hamster wheel and we’re never… I mean — they’re always going to win. They’re always going to win in a constitutional argument.

Miguel Escoto: Thanks for listening. On our next episode, we will continue our conversation about oil and gas radioactive waste with Justin Noble. He is an investigative journalist who has covered this topic at length and is continuing to expose these industry secrets to the public. He authored the Rolling Stones piece I read at the beginning of the episode. Stay tuned and see you soon.


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Show Notes

America’s Radioactive Secret” by Justin Nobel for Rolling Stone, January 2020. 

Wasted in the Lone Star State: The impacts of toxic oil and gas waste in Texas” by Melissa Troutman and Amy Mall for Earthworks, April 2021.

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