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Episode 6: The Lotus LLC Saga

A lot more than oil and gas comes to the surface at an oil and gas well. We’re joined by Justin Nobel whose 2020 feature with Rolling Stone magazine, “America’s Radioactive Secret,” was the result of a two year investigation into the radioactivity brought to the surface in oil and gas production and the harms posed to the industry’s workers, the public and communities, and the environment. 

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Episode Guest

Justin Nobel writes on issues of science and the environment for U.S. magazines, investigative sites and literary journals. His 2020 feature with Rolling Stone magazine, “America’s Radioactive Secret,” was the result of a two year investigation into the radioactivity brought to the surface in oil and gas production and the harms posed to the industry’s workers, the public and communities, and the environment. This article was awarded Best Narrative Feature with the National Association of Science Writers. Justin is writing a book on the topic of oilfield radioactivity for Simon & Schuster, due to be published in Spring 2024. His work has been published in Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Science and Nature Writing. A book he co-wrote with a death row exonoree, “The Story of Dan Bright,” was published in 2016 by University of New Orleans Press. He writes regularly on the topic of oilfield radioactivity for DeSmog.

Episode Transcript


Miguel Escoto: Welcome back to our podcast about the climate and health horrors of the Texas Permian Basin oil fields. This episode we will continue our discussion on the radioactive waste crisis created by fossil fuel production. We are joined by journalist Justin Nobel. Justin writes on issues of science and the environment for Rolling Stone, Oxford American, the DeSmog and other U.S. magazines, investigative sites and literary journals. He’s presently working on a book about the issue of the radioactivity brought to the surface in the oil and gas production process. It is tentatively titled Petroleum 238: Big Oil’s Dangerous Secret and the Grassroots Fight to Stop It. Here’s my conversation with Justin. 


Miguel Escoto: Justin, welcome to the podcast. You’ve written a lot about the dangerous radioactive component of the oil and gas industry. For example, in your 2020 feature in Rolling Stones entitled “America’s Radioactive Secret.” We’ve well established in this episode how radioactive toxins are, in fact a part of the oil and gas waste, and how the Permian Basin is no different, especially as the epicenter of fracking in the U.S. You’ve also covered at length the saga of the Permian-based oil and gas waste company Lotus LLC, which I hope you can elaborate for us here. So, yes. Justin, welcome. Um, to set the ground here. Can you tell us how companies usually deal with industry radioactive waste and why? Lotus LLC in Andrews, Texas was a particularly horrifying incident.

Justin Nobel: Yeah. Thank you, Miguel. Thank you for having me on the podcast. So to understand Lotus, I’m just going to take a step back and give another overview of what oilfield waste is, right, which I understand folks would have learned a little bit about from Melissa. Melissa’s awesome and it’s fantastic that you connected with her on this. She’s the best. So a lot more than oil and gas comes to the surface at an oil and gas well, right? And we have a variety of different forms of waste, which are essentially natural things from deep down in the earth that are there with oil and gas and they’re coming up. And one major form is what the industry calls brine or produced water. It’s this really toxic fluid. It’s a slurry. It’s a lot of liquid. And it comes up in copious amounts at virtually any oil and gas well. It has high levels of salt, toxic levels of salt, and it can contain heavy metals at elevated levels, and also radium, the radioactive element, radium and at high levels. Radium is a heavy metal. And the problem for the oil and gas industry since day one — day one being back in the 1850s — is that… this material. You don’t want this material necessarily. You want the oil or the gas, but the produced water, the brine, is there as well. And so in the early days of the industry, it was just shunted right off into a ditch, into a pond or a pit beside the well. Now it often goes to an injection well. A whole slate of issues with injection wells…. But for our focus today, the problem is that brine does not just stay brine. It has a lot of solids suspended in it, and we just went through some of them. There’s heavy metals, there’s radium. So if you’re holding brine or produced water, you’re holding it in a tank as we often see at the wellhead. There’s tanks for oil, there’s tanks for brine. You’re holding it there in a tank or you’re holding it there in a truck which is transporting it to an injection well. You will invariably get what the regulators or the industry refer to as sludge. This sludge is just the solid gunky stuff in brine, it settles out to the bottom and that will often have an enhanced radioactivity level.

So where brine is — as fluids go — reasonably radioactive and radioactive enough that by various definitions we can define it as radioactive, the sludge will have even higher levels and the EPA actually has a page on TENORM. And they define in detail what TENORM wastes are. And again, these are “Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials”. It’s the way that regulators often define oil field, radioactive oilfield waste. And right there on the EPA’s page, they will tell you that sludge is one of the highest forms. It’s one of the hottest forms. So we also have drill cuttings coming up at a wellhead. And this is just very simple. Like you dig a hole at the beach, you know, you make a sand castle, you pull the stuff out. Those are like the sand cuttings that you pull out in drilling a well. You just go in much deeper and you’re pulling stuff out too. And these are drill cuttings. And for much of the industry’s history, wells were vertical. They went straight down and they hit a pocket of oil and gas that is trapped at pressure in the rock and the stuff fountains out to the surface. 

Miguel Escoto: Right. Right.

Justin Nobel: Yeah, and this we refer to as “conventional oil and gas.” But we’re now going down to the motherlode layer, which is often a black shale layer. And these are the layers that literally where oil and gas is born. And it’s often a layer that forms on the bottom of a shallow, warm ocean where there’s a lot of organic life happening at the surface. It falls to the bottom. You get this mucky layer compressed over time and compacted, and you get an oil and gas bearing layer. It’s a black shale. With fracking, we’re not just drilling down vertically, we’re now drilling horizontally through the black shale. And black shales tend to have higher radioactivity levels as well. So we don’t just have the liquid slurry — the brine produced water to worry about and then the sludge that will form from that. We have the drill cuttings which can — according to the government reports that have assessed the issue, and they’re not many of them — there are some kind of elevated levels of radioactivity right there in the drill cuttings. So now what to do with this waste? Often, as I described in the early days of the industry, it would literally just be put there right on site in the form of a pit. The liquids would go into the pit with the thought that they could evaporate away and the solids would go into the pit and be buried.

And versions of that still happen across parts of the country, especially in Texas and North Dakota, we have a major problem with pits. But much of this waste is now going to go to a landfill. But the radioactivity levels are often too high for the waste to be accepted at normal landfills, which in the eastern states is often a landfill that also takes household garbage, in the Western states, there’s more likely to be a specific landfill designated for oilfield waste, and that’s the case in Texas. But still, much of this radioactive waste, especially the sludge, sometimes parts of the drill cuttings and then other types of waste that I haven’t mentioned yet, like filter socks, which are used to capture the sediment in brine… So again, you’re collecting the gunk in the brine. You imagine that’s going to have higher levels and they do that is too high to go to a landfill. So this waste has to be dealt with. And the real black box of this issue is that oilfield waste is not considered to be hazardous by the U.S. government, and that is the law of the land. The federal government is what we live under, and they make the rules. And their rule is that oilfield waste is not hazardous. It doesn’t matter that it has all sorts of materials in it that designate hazards when seen by an independent eye. Overall, it’s not hazardous and so even though you have this waste that is really concerning, it can often go to normal landfills. Except these landfills have radioactivity sensors or alarms, various ways to check that. And they do have regulations on that alone because landfills are very worried about radioactivity. So you’re going to end up tripping the alarms — and this has happened across the country with a lot of oilfield waste. So where do you put it? And what’s happened is what I think is one of the most concerning aspects of the oil and gas industry. Because of the very amorphous and loose regulations governing oilfield waste, you’ve had a number of really, in my opinion, sloppy and shady operators come up to deal with oilfield waste. And right now I’m not making a statement to say they all are. But you’ve created space for very shady, sloppy people to enter this game, to throw together a system where they’re supposedly treating or cleaning and to make some quick money doing this. And this is the case across the country. You have various companies that will say their role is to take oilfield waste and what’s called down-blend it. They’ll  try to mix the more radioactive stuff with less radioactive stuff. So it can then go to a traditional landfill, which is a lot cheaper than if they had to send it to somewhere meant for dealing with radioactive waste.

Miguel Escoto: And the more that’s being produced, the more oil and gas that’s being pumped out of the ground, the more this demand increases for, like you said, these sloppy, shady companies that don’t want to ring the alarm bells of landfills. Right?

Justin Nobel: Yeah, exactly. And it. Right. The more produced, the more facilities. And it would be great for there to be more data on this. But often we’re trying to scrap together numbers we have on exactly how many facilities there are like this doing what’s often called treatment. And I’ll give you one example, and this gets us directly to Lotus. I’ll give you an example because it’s just came up with a story that I did for DeSmog, which is a radioactive oilfield waste treatment facility in Ohio called Austin Master Services. Now, Austin Masters Services takes a lot of these sludges, drill cuttings and filter socks — some of the more radioactive known radioactive items in the industry — and they process them in a massive old steel plant. And we have the inspection reports from the Ohio regulatory agency going back years on this facility. They actually visit it, they do inspections, and they find out that there’s leaks in the ceiling, there’s waste leaking out the door. They actually have photos from the state inspectors of tires tracking this waste out the door. They take levels and the levels are well above background. And the workers have virtually no protection at all. And they’re walking around in puddles of this waste in some of the photos. It’s a nightmare and it’s a really concerning health problem, too. And now you have a local group in Ohio that’s taking samples outside the door of that facility. And, you know, it’s not really surprising to me because the state files show waste is exiting the facility.

This local environmental group has now found that radioactivity levels are elevated outside this facility. What this facility is doing is this very concerning job of down-blending, and they will tell you that the lower stuff goes to a local landfill — I still don’t know which one. The higher stuff is packed onto trains and is going to a facility in Utah that was designated to accept some of this material, the higher radioactive waste that the oil and gas industry produced. And when you look at its facility… in a company called Energy Solutions, we found out that on several occasions these trains of waste from Ohio to Utah actually arrive, leaking with the implication that they leaked across the country. So when I say sloppy, this is what I mean by sloppy. Now that waste is actually no longer going to Utah and I’ve just recently learned it is going to Lotus in the West Texas desert. 

Miguel Escoto: Amazing. Well…

Justin Nobel: So Lotus is a really interesting place. Lotus happens to have what I would say is a very valuable permit. They have a permit that enables them to inject radioactive oilfield waste into a salt cavern. And now the Department of Energy has looked at the issue well before the age of modern fracking. They’ve looked at the issue of radioactive oilfield waste, and they determined that a salt cavern is really the best place to put this stuff. They went through a variety of options, including plowing it into fields, which is still done in parts of Texas and Oklahoma. But they said, no, there’s problems there. But the salt cavern really poses the least amount of harm to the workers and to the public, and that makes some degree of intuitive sense. A salt cavern is essentially a bubble of salt, a very large bubble of salt below the ground at depths of thousands of feet often. And if you can dissolve the salt, which is very easy to do just by running water down to the salt cavern, that’s called solution mining — you create a space. You create as close as we can get on planet Earth to an underground storage locker. And once you’ve created that storage locker, which is the hollowed out salt cavern, you presumably have created a good place to put this radioactive oilfield waste. And Lotus has a salt cavern. They legitimately own a salt cavern. An early question of mine was “is there even a salt cavern there?” There is a salt cavern there. There is a salt cavern there.

Miguel Escoto: That would have been quite a scam.

Justin Nobel: Yeah. So the cavern’s there. There’s salt caverns across Louisiana and Texas. And Lotus does sit on a salt cavern there in West Texas. So they have a permit to legally dispose of radioactive oilfield waste and very few people have this sort of permit. There are sites like the site in Utah, which happens to deal a lot with the nuclear industry. So they have appropriate permits for dealing with moderately radioactive waste as well. There aren’t that many places with those permits, so Lotus becomes a really attractive option for anyone in the oil and gas industry who wants to deal with their radioactive oilfield waste. And in a world where all parts of the system were running on the level, that seems fine. It’s out there in the West Texas desert. It’s a lot further away from humans than a lot of the landfills I’ve been to in Ohio and West Virginia where there’s homes and playgrounds right down the street, or in Texas for that matter, where there’s homes right next to these landfills. So we’re going to take it out to the desert. It’s more than ten miles outside of the city of Andrews, I think 16 or 20, I’m forgetting the exact number. But I visited this site on more than one occasion and it is legitimately out in the middle of nowhere. The problem is that once I received the records from the Railroad Commission, we learned that there were numerous incidents of inappropriate handling of this waste by Lotus. And we have a number of inspection reports that occurred kind of like on the eve of fracking, the early 2000, where Railroad Commission inspectors would go to Lotus and they would note that waste was sitting in tanks, that the waste they had seen on the prior visit was still in the same spot sitting in a tank. That waste was even leaking from these tanks, and also that some of these tanks had fairly high levels of radioactivity.High enough that for a worker, were they not properly protected and were they spending a lot of time near that tank would start to receive worrisome exposures.

And these are laid out right there in the files. And just a little context on that. These files were obtained via a formal records request to the Railroad Commission. They have an open records office. And, you know, it’s an appropriate way for us journalists to get information. Sometimes states are very… sometimes states are very… they make it difficult to get that information. The Railroad Commission, after a little bit of back and forth, passed along like over 2,000 pages of documents. And it took me a long time to go through all that. 

Miguel Escoto: That sounds like it.

Justin Nobel: Yeah. But within there were some of the secrets of what’s happening right? That was… that was one thing. So you’re starting to build this idea of, well, is this waste even really being injected down into the solid cavern? That was implied right there in the inspection reports by the Railroad Commission And I’ll let you go with the questioning from here. But now we’re into the heart of it.

Miguel Escoto: So, yeah, you set the scene very well. We have the characters in place. Lotus is here in West, Texas. They’re receiving a lot of waste. You’ve just explained why. Because they have this very valuable salt cavern. Now let’s introduce another character into the mix. The whistleblower. What did this anonymous whistleblower within Lotus reveal in this story?

Justin Nobel: Yeah. So the whistleblower is not actually… does not actually work for Lotus. 

Miguel Escoto: Oh, yeah. My bad.

Justin Nobel: Yeah no. Just want to be very clear about as much information as we can convey about the whistleblower. But they’re not an employee for Lotus. But they do work and have done work in the oil field waste sector and had visited Lotus and were familiar with Lotus and a number of other oilfield waste sites across the country. And their take on Lotus was that… was really a follow up to what the Railroad Commission had noted in their own inspection reports, which is that Lotus was indeed having difficulty getting the waste underground to the salt cavern and waste, according to this whistleblower and the photos they took, appeared to be piling up around the site. And the whistleblower laid out in detail what they thought were the financial incentives of doing something like that — which is that disposing of waste at a traditional landfill is fairly cheap. Disposing of waste — and this is all done by the ton or by the pound — disposing of waste at a facility that is appropriately permitted to accept radioactive waste… It’s going to be much more expensive. And so what the whistleblower laid out is this scenario where Lotus was able to truck to charge high value for this waste — and the whistleblower did not see evidence that all the waste was making it into the salt cavern, which is the expensive part of this process. 

Miguel Escoto: Right. 

Justin Nobel: So therefore the waste is just piling up. And that sounds, you know, like the profit is going to be high from that. And what the whistle blower also laid out were some of the technical challenges in getting the waste into a salt cavern. And I think this is evident in the photos we have of the site. So okay, we get it. There’s a salt cavern. It’s this big rock or below the earth or as close as we’re going to get to a locker. We still have to get the waste from the surface of the earth into the locker. How is that done? That’s done with an injection well, which is the same type of injection well we know of for the oil industry, because they use that to to get the brine down, right? But brine produced water is liquid. It’s a lot easier to shoot liquid down a hole than it is to shoot sludge, or for that matter, to shoot metal pipes caked in a radioactive scale. How the heck do you do that? So with the sludge at least, and with some of the other material — and this is laid out in the article — essentially it goes through kind of like a grinding process. And sometimes that type of machinery is referred to as a pug mill. But want to macerate the waste up, get it to a point where it’s fine enough to be injected down, and the whistle blower used a term which is used across the industry — TENORM injection or TENORM slurry injection. So you’re taking this slightly liquidy, sludgy, messy waste and you’re mixing it up enough so you can inject it down the hole. That’s the idea. And what the whistleblower’s conveying is that they’re not that this is really hard — TENORM slurry injection is very expensive. It’s complicated. It’s a technically challenging operation. It’s doable, but you need to put a lot of money and effort into getting your tools right and getting your science right. And what the whistleblower observed below the site is that they were not getting this right. They were not doing it right, and therefore the waste was piling up. Lotus’s reply to that is that they think they are doing it right. They’re investing more money in technology and they believe that they’re going to be able to handle this material because of these investments. And they don’t see a problem with the way they’re trying to get the waste into the salt cavern.

Miguel Escoto: So… Justin, can you describe these photos that were sent and what this waste piling up looks like? You’ve described all of the financial logic for why a Lotus would want to charge this premium for a premium process of storing radioactive waste. But what did the photos look like? What does waste piling up look like?

Justin Nobel: Right. So the extraordinary thing about the records I received from the Railroad Commission is that they came along with quarterly reports. And in Texas, many facilities in the oil and gas industry have to file some form of quarterly report. And with Lotus’s quarterly report, it gives some data on every single load coming in and it also gives radioactivity levels. So whereas a lot of states were guessing what are they taking, how much are they taking? I was able to look through and know exactly what they’re taking and from who they were taking it and what the radioactivity levels were. At Lotus, it’s a lot of what I described to you, the sludge, the tank bottoms, this gunky stuff that forms on the bottom of a variety of different types of oilfield tanks. It was also scale. And scale is this very hard mineral deposit that will form on the inside of oil field pipes. So we think, again, back to this brine, this produced water that comes up the vertical drill hole with oil and gas. It’s filled with heavy metals, it’s filled with radioactive metals. You’re going from a high pressure, high temperature environment deep within the earth to a much lower pressure, lower temperature environment near the Earth’s surface. And so just like with your kitchen sink system, you’ll have gunk and minerals settle out and coat the pipes when you change pressure, when you change flow. A similar thing happens in oil field pipes, and these pipes can get coated in this mineral scale, which is just the metals in the brine and in the mix of oil and gas coming up, settling out on the surface of the pipe and forming a very hardened scale. That scale can be extraordinarily rich in radium, whereas produced water, you know, again, has a reasonable amount of radium. Pipe scale can have an extraordinary amount of radium levels as high — and this again right on the EPA page and has the waste levels recorded by the EPA — as high as 400,000 picocuries per gram for radium.

Miguel Escoto: And for context, what does that… How does that figure translate?

Justin: General background levels on planet Earth are in the range of 1 picocurie per gram for radium. So we’re like 400,000 times background and the EPA has designated 5 picocuries per gram as a good cleanup level limit for a contaminated site. So if you have a Superfund site that is contaminated, you’re trying to get rid of all the bad stuff — they want to keep radium below 5 curies per gram, which is about five times background (background generally being about one picocuries per gram). Here we have 400,000 picocuries per gram. That is a high level for scale, but often scale is in the range of 10,000 to 2,000, 80,000 still well above this level. So the scale can be extraordinarily hot and the problem is it’s stuck on so tight to the pipe that it’s very difficult to remove. That removal job is sometimes done at what’s called a pipe cleaning yard. And these can be really dangerous places for oilfield workers.

Miguel Escoto: Sounds like it.

Justin Nobel: Yeah, we’ve had a lot of lawsuits that come out of Mississippi and Louisiana where oilfield workers at these pipe cleaning yards are trying to remove this scale. They’re trying to chisel it out. It creates a lot of dust. They breathe in the dust. And there’s been all sorts of cancers and there’s been a number of lawsuits successful in favor of the workers on this issue. Often the scale can’t be removed and the industry will just send the pipes somewhere. And what appears to be happening at Lotus is they’re not necessarily getting the scale removed from the pipes. They’re getting the pipes still gunked up with the scale. And we know that because when we look at some of these photos, we see what looks like a pool noodle, you know, like sticking up out here and there. These are pieces of oilfield piping. It’s a vertical oil field piping. And there can often be a little cap on the end, which is an appropriate way to try and keep in the scale, so it doesn’t simply blow away. But it’s evident from the photos and also from the Railroad Commission files that a lot of pipe scale is coming in. But again, it comes in often attached to the full pipe. So we started again to get into the difficulty of how to deal with that. I don’t have a full response from Lotus or from the Railroad Commission. How do you grind down a radioactive pipe that’s 30 feet long into some injector down hole? Yeah, I don’t know. But presumably that’s what is supposed to be happening there.

Miguel Escoto: So. So I’m looking at the photos right now from the DeSmog article. And I mean, if I didn’t know any better, this scandalous photo looks just kind of boring. It looks like pipes and tanks. But you’re describing to us how these aren’t any old pipes. These are dangerous pipes that have radioactive elements. I see also there are these like yellow stickers on them, on these tanks. Can you tell us about what these yellow stickers signify?

Justin Nobel: Yes. I just want to make sure I’m looking at the exact same photos as you, but I believe there are some stickers with the classic radioactive symbol.

Miguel Escoto: Yeah, with the radioactive symbol. And they’re just kind of slapped onto these tanks. Here’s a question for you. Obviously, this is not the intended and the ideal version of storing these radioactive pipes. Right? Just in uncovered tanks?

Justin Nobel: Right. Yeah. And I think, you know, you bring up the important point, which is that, I mean, you could show this to you know, you can show this to a child and be like, is this a clean room or a dirty room? And is this a clean space or a dirty space? It’s a dirty space. I mean, it looks sloppy. It looks…

Miguel Escoto: Right. It does. Rusty, these tanks are rusty.

Justin Nobel: Exactly. Exactly. It does not look like a well-run facility. And Lotus reacted very aggressively and energetically to the photos and to the idea that we were going to publish them. And they were quite furious that a whistleblower existed that had supplied us with this information and took steps to try and find out who that whistleblower was. They also offered to… And they said that, you know, this is an unrepresentative photo. It’s fair enough. You know, maybe these photos are Lotus, they didn’t say this wasn’t our facility. But they said this isn’t representative of us, you know, and that… that can be true, right? Maybe they look better on a better day. Maybe we caught them or the whistleblower caught them on a bad day. And every other day things look fine. Well again, we have the record from the Railroad Commission to indicate that they inspectors were finding versions of what this photo found as well. So it does seem in line with what’s been laid out of the facility. But Lotus offered me the opportunity to visit the site. Again, this is during the pandemic. I’m here in New York and this really wasn’t an appropriate trip. We also had a tight deadline at this point for the story, but DeSmog has a photo they work with an El Paso, great photographer named Justin Hamel. Justin is used to flying over sites. He also reports on immigration areas and getting up in the skies of Texas and knowing really well the rules of how to appropriately take photos. This is something Justin’s familiar with. And so Justin was able to get up over the site in a small plane. And Justin’s photos show a site that does look neater. It looks more neatly arranged. The barrels do seem to be very well organized and concentrated in a certain part of the facility. But you still can visibly see what’s in them, so they’re open to the wind. They’re open to the sun. And it still does not appear that there is a liner protecting those presumably quite radioactive materials from the soil and then the groundwater table that would be below that at some point.

Miguel Escoto: So all of this radioactive dust can just blow away into the wind because they don’t have any lining on the tanks, is how I’m understanding it.

Justin Nobel: Yeah, absolutely. And that would be my concern as well. And a simple way to track that would be for the Railroad Commission to put up radiation monitors, air monitors on the fence line of the facility. At certain points on the ground, you’re regularly testing the soil levels, testing right around that site where all this stuff is concentrated. I’m not aware that that testing has happened. I haven’t seen it. But there are ways to assess whether or not the concern you just raised, which I think is a valid concern. Is stuff blowing away in the wind? There would be ways to test that and determine yes or no, but I’m not aware of those tests happening. 

Miguel Escoto: Right. And there’s also this anonymous citizens group based in Andrews that brought this up. They brought a health concern. Can you tell us about what this citizens group was concerned about, particularly when it comes to… additionally, how this poses a risk to our water sources as a region? Not not only as people within Andrews, but as a broader Southwest Permian Basin area.

Justin Nobel: Yeah. So this is a great point and there’s a couple of things I want to highlight here. So one is the issue that it seems like you all have focused on in your series here, and it’s so important. You have a state regulatory agency within Texas, the Railroad Commission in this case, doing investigations and finding what appears to be really concerning issues that are right there in their reports from the early 2000s. And yet the facility continues to operate even more waste continues to come in, and it does not seem… there does not seem to be regulatory action on the matter. And then you have what I have found across fracking country, oil and gas country, is it’s up to the residents, the citizens, the community, the workers who will have to deal with this head on to ring the alarm bell themself. It’s like a Twilight Zone episode. The state sees the problem, but they just lay it out in a report and then they go and do another report and they find the problem again. And then they come back a month later and the problem is still there and that’s it. And finally, a worker — or in this case, a group that called themselves Concerned Citizens of Andrews County, Texas — they wrote this letter to the Railroad Commission. And again, I received like over 2,000 pages of documents from the Railroad Commission. This letter must have been reproduced like seven or eight, maybe even more times. It was there throughout in various ways, you know, things get over copied sometimes when you do a records request. So at some point the Railroad Commission, you know, thought of this letter as important enough to copy it a bunch of times and respond to it and there’s all sorts of notes on it. But this letter is people in Andrews, they’re remaining anonymous, and they’re going to the site. They’re talking to the workers and they’re noticing things themselves, such as leaky barrels, barrels stored along um… Sorry, I’m just looking to see if they actually observed leaky barrels. The citizens group might not have observed leaky barrels, but they observed, quote, “a large pile of dirt and rocks on the north fence line that appears to be radioactive contaminant as well. A trio of 500 barrel frack tanks that are completely full of what appears to be radioactive waste.” So they observe this concerning situation. And they also talked to yeah, they talked to workers and the workers expressed concern. And then furthermore, one final point is this citizens group, they say that the reason they’re staying anonymous is because of the litigious nature of Lotus. We fear not only reprisal from him personally, but also from his battery of attorneys. So, you know, DeSmog dealing with Lotus and its’ aggressive response. Well, these residents dealt with that same type of thing 22 years ago when they tried to ring the alarm bell on this facility.

Miguel Escoto: So going back to the whistleblower, they expressed concern that Lotus quote, “poses a black eye to the oil and gas industry and Texas regulators”, which brings up the question, how much is Lotus an anomaly? Is irresponsible radioactive waste management common and is responsible and safe management of these radioactive waste materials… Is that even possible?

Justin Nobel: Right. Lotus, in my reporting and in my view, is not an anomaly at all because of the loose regulations around oilfield waste and in particular around radioactive oilfield waste, you have enabled a nightmare situation and essentially you’re just kind of like running the American economy. This is just American entrepreneurship, you know, moving forward. There’s a material that has to be dealt with. Someone’s going to make a company that deals with it, someone’s going to make a company that trucks it. Someone’s going to, you know, get the appropriate permits or enough permits to be able to file it away, somehow that’s what’s happening here. We’re like little ants, right? And we got to run our little businesses. But because rules don’t exist and no one’s really examined in detail this stuff, these people are running their little ant businesses in an absurd world where there’s no harm. And there are very real harms to these things. So everywhere where we see oilfield waste, we see danger. I see danger, I see concern. And I see a company that in my eyes is not running it in an appropriate way. Workers who are absolutely not appropriately trained to deal with what they’re dealing with. And I’m speaking now beyond Lotus, to answer your question. I’ve spoken to workers who are running, in Ohio, radioactive oilfield waste treatment centers, and they’ve proudly conveyed to me that they have no training, that they don’t have science classes beyond high school, but they know this stuff. They’ve been in the oil field their whole life and they know this stuff. And of course, I get the idea of, you know, we don’t all need to get a high school degree or a college degree. There’s a lot to be learned from the world and life experience. But radioactivity is something that you do need at least some training. And these people hadn’t even taken courses on it, and yet they’re proudly, excitedly running this facility. And by the way, they had partnered with a company from Luxembourg in this specific case to deal with this waste.

Miguel Escoto: And I imagine they’re hearing that from their boss. Their bosses are telling them like, hey, you should be proud of this. They’re most likely not aware of how violently dangerous this is. Same with the actual drilling. It’s very dangerous. And yeah, I guess that that can be a great point to round out this interview. How is this a workers’ rights issue?

Justin Nobel: Yeah, this is really such an important point because, you know, oil and gas get split off in between the people pushing for climate change and the people pushing for jobs. Well, once you start looking at the waste issue, you realize that the people screwed over the most by this industry are its workers because they are not told what they are dealing with. They are not even given basic PPE. I mean, we’re talking about simple training on how to not eat, drink and smoke cigarettes around this waste. Which in many facilities I’ve been to would be invaluable information that would prevent a lot of harm. Now, Lotus does seem to have a much more robust worker training program, at least from my back and forth with their officials in a lot of the facilities that I visited across the country. But in general, what we see is that the worker is on the front line of the exposure. The worker is told to go into a brine tank and shovel this stuff out, shovel out the sludge, which can have extraordinary levels of radium, of radioactive lead, of polonium (which is another very, very dangerous radioactive element). They’re told to shovel this stuff out and they pass it out the door. Sometimes they have to squeegee off the walls of the brine tank. Um… 

Miguel Escoto: That sounds horrifying.

Justin Nobel: It is horrifying. And I’ve often asked workers, how do you even do that job? I mean, the smells there from other materials in the waste from some of the fuels and the hydrocarbons are going to be atrocious and some of the chemicals. How do you deal with that? And they say, oh, well, you know, you can’t like you can’t chicken out and not do it. It’s a tough guy thing. You got to go in there and do it. And if the last guy stayed in for 20 minutes, you got to try and stay in for longer. And the oil and gas industry uses this macho mentality, they really embed this in workers to enable them to take these risks, to go that extra mile and take the risks. And they’re just being a man. They’re just being tough. But what they’re really doing is breathing in radioactive material, which is going to potentially deposit in their lungs or be carried to other parts of their body. You know, and that’s… that’s the crime of this. And the oil and gas industry has known that these materials are radioactive for decades now, and yet they still enable these practices to continue. 

Miguel Escoto: We hope you’ve enjoyed this conversation with Justin as well as our previous episode with Melissa. Besides covering the climate emergency created by the Permian, we’ve thoroughly covered how oil and gas waste itself is enough to justify a full transition to clean, renewable energy. Well, how do we do that? How will this affect workers depending on this industry? How can we plug in fossil fuel worker roughnecks to be part of this just transition away from fossil fuels? The next two and final episodes of this series will focus on these questions. We will speak to a ranch owner, policy expert, and a former oil and gas worker. Stay tuned.

Next: Episode 7 >>

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Show Notes

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

Where Does All The Radioactive Fracking Waste Go?” by Justin Nobel for DeSmog, April 2021.

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