The Louisiana State Court of Appeal ordered the State Department of Environmental Quality to test the environmental impact of discharges from produced waters from oil and gas production activities within Louisiana territorial waters in the Gulf of Mexico, upholding the position of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) and its attorney Stuart H. Smith that DEQ failed to protect the public from pollution and possible radiation poisoning when it issued oil and gas permits for exploration without proper monitoring of the resultant impact on territorial waters.
“LEAN has worked on the environmental and human health impacts of produced waters throughout its 25 year history. We thank the court for recognizing the problems with this process and for being a guardian of the environment,” said LEAN Director Mary Lee Orr.
Since 2002 oil and gas production facilities ("oil rigs") within the territorial seas of the State of Louisiana (within 3 miles of shore) have been discharging their wastewater into the nearshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico under an inadequate and EXPIRED General Permit from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. This waste stream contains a number of toxic materials such as heavy metals, petroleum compounds and radioactive materials. LEAN has been working for over two years in an effort to get the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to establish the proper permitting oversight for these facilities.
LEAN alleges that dangerous amounts of radioactive material are released into the Gulf waters when commercial oil and gas discharges of deck drainage, produced water, well treatment and workover fluids, hydrostatic test and other waste waters related to exploration, development and production by oil and gas companies are dumped directly into the sea.
“There is more than just the crisis in the Gulf caused by the BP oil spill last year,” said Attorney Smith. “There is also lots of radioactive material. And as we know, radioactive material does not go away.”
According to LEAN, the production of oil and gas delivers several different waste streams into the environment in an uncontrolled release. 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.
Attorney Smith has been fighting to expose the dangers of NORM exposure for 25 years, and is well known for his role as lead counsel in an oilfield radiation case that resulted in a verdict of $1.056 billion against ExxonMobil for attempting to cover up the NORM-contamination it left on land it leased from the Grefer family in Harvey, Louisiana.
The LEAN suit shows that the contaminated discharges in the Gulf have been a daily reality since the 1950s, and the amount of NORM-contaminated waters released into the Gulf from the runaway Macondo Well is unprecedented. A “secret industry study” from the American Petroleum Institute (API) written in 1990 and exposed in an exclusiveNew York Times story earlier this year, 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 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),” said Smith.
LEAN and Smith have independently tested Gulf waters for NORM amounts at a lab in the United Kingdom, 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 warns documented levels of radioactive materials in the water are “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, radon gases present in the methane expelled from the wells and significant concentrations of radium-226 and radium-228 are present in the produced waters, yet no estimates of these radioactive discharges have been publicly released by the federal government. However, the federal Environmental Protection Agency did require produced water testing and monitoring in the Gulf until 2002, when the state DEQ failed to continue the permitting process.
The suit filed by LEAN documented that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality was not requiring rig owners to test for radioactive material in their produced-water discharge or for an independent environmental impact statement (EIS) to assess the risk inherent in these discharges. The Court of Appeal decision states that DEQ failed to protect the public interest based on a preponderance of evidence that produced waters are indeed dangerous. DEQ is now ordered to act.
For more information, contact:
Mary Lee Orr, Director of LEAN (225) 588-5059
Attorney Stuart Smith (786)879-9601
Cheron Brylski (504) 460-1468.