When it comes to technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials (TENORM) produced by the oil and gas industry, “regulations have not kept up with technology,” said the Environmental Protection Agency’s Philip Egidi during a panel session on the opening day of the 2021 ANS Annual Meeting.
The session, “Environmental and Radiological Impacts from Fracking,” held Monday afternoon, discussed the generation of TENORM wastes from the extraction of oil and natural gas by hydraulic fracturing, and the industry’s handling of those wastes. According to the EPA, TENORM is “naturally occurring radioactive materials that have been concentrated or exposed to the accessible environment as a result of human activities such as manufacturing, mineral extraction, or water processing.”
Egidi: Egidi, an EPA environmental scientist and former pipeline worker, pointed out that TENORM is not federally regulated like other radioactive materials. The problem, he said, is that TENORM was not addressed by the Atomic Energy Act but was left to the states to regulate. “We need a bill, we need legislation, so that we know how to do the regulations appropriately,” he said.
Geltman: Panelist Elizabeth Geltman, a professor at the City University of New York’s School of Public Health, agreed that reform of the oil and gas industry is needed to better manage TENORM wastes. Geltman compared the current regulations covering the oil and gas industry to the hazardous waste regulations prior to 1980, before the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund, was established.
Geltman said there is a particular need for better post-closure oversight of fracking operations, noting that a large number of oil and gas wells in the Marcellus Shale region of the northeastern United States are close to residential homes.
While Geltman said that it cannot be definitively proven that fracking was the cause, levels of radon gas rose “exponentially” in the Marcellus region following the growth of the industry. She pointed to one study that found radon gas in the outdoor, ambient air to be 7 picocuries per liter in one area. The EPA action level for radon is 4 pCi/L.
Nobel: Science journalist Justin Nobel, the session’s final speaker, called the management of facilities handling TENORM waste “atrocious,” with waste being poorly managed and with little oversight from state regulators. Nobel, who investigated TENORM in the fracking industry for Rolling Stone, focused his talk on the lack of worker protections, noting that waste handlers are seldom told what they’re working with and are given inadequate training and little or no personal protective equipment.
“I have spoken to many of these workers,” Nobel said. “They do not have an understanding of what they’re dealing with.” Nobel claimed that employers would intentionally seek out people desperate for employment who would not question the nature of their work.
- Read about the 2021 ANS Virtual Annual Meeting's opening plenary.