Exposing Big Oil’s Radioactive Secret — And How We Pay the Price

Published Jun 26, 2024


Climate and Energy

Reporter Justin Nobel joins us to discuss his new book, Petroleum-238, on how the oil and gas industry gets away with poisoning workers and communities with radioactive waste.

Reporter Justin Nobel joins us to discuss his new book, Petroleum-238, on how the oil and gas industry gets away with poisoning workers and communities with radioactive waste.

In 1976, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), a groundbreaking law to more safely manage our country’s hazardous waste. But thanks to lobbying efforts, Big Oil and Gas received a huge exemption. Scientists, lawmakers, and the industry knowing that oil and gas waste is highly radioactive, yet under RCRA, it is automatically classified as nonhazardous — opening the doors for all manner of harms.

“It can be as radioactive as the Chernobyl core,” said reporter Justin Nobel. “It would still be ‘nonhazardous’ by letter of U.S. law.”

This year, Justin published Petroleum-238: Big Oil’s Dangerous Secret and the Grassroots Fight to Stop It. The book is the culmination of seven years of researching the science and speaking with oil workers, frontline communities, regulators, and industry insiders. What he discovered is a decades-long history of hiding and downplaying the harms of the industry’s shockingly toxic, radioactive waste.

At our June Livable Future LIVE event, Justin joined us to explain the breadth and depth of the threat, and the industry’s efforts to evade accountability. 

An Astronomical Amount of Unregulated Toxic Waste

About seven years ago, Justin began traveling through fracking country — West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio — to report on and learn from communities on the frontlines of the fracking boom. At the end of that tour, an organizer in Ohio told him that a company was making liquid de-icer out of waste from the oil and gas industry.

“It was to be applied to your patio, and yet it was made out of radioactive oil field waste, and it was being sold at Lowes,” he recalled incredulously.

This oil field waste, or “brine,” is an unavoidable part of fossil fuel production. Drilling brings up a cocktail of naturally harmful contaminants from deep within the earth. It contains toxic levels of salt, lead, arsenic, and radioactive radium.

This waste must be disposed of, and the industry relies on doing it as cheaply as possible — often by hiding the true scale of the danger, Justin explained.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking water limit for radium is 5 picocuries per liter. The threshold at which a liquid waste stream is defined as “radioactive” is 60 picocuries per liter. But the waste from the Marcellus shale formation, one of the biggest sources of natural gas in the country, can average 9,330 picocuries per liter and as high as 28,500.

To make matters worse, the industry produces unimaginable quantities of this waste — some 3 billion gallons every day.

Big Oil’s Strategies to Offload Their Toxic Waste onto Us

In the industry’s early years, fossil fuel companies just dumped their waste into streams, pits, and wetlands. The resulting contamination has stuck around for decades, poisoning the land. But more recently, they have developed new strategies for “disposal” that come with new problems. 

Currently, the vast majority of oil field waste goes into injection wells deep within the earth. But Justin found that from the beginning, no scientist thought this was a good and permanent solution. Many of the risks predicted in the 1970s, like leaks, water contamination, and earthquakes, have borne out today.

As one EPA official said at the time, “It is a technology of avoiding problems, not solving them in any real sense. We really do not know what happens to the waste down there. We just hope.”

“And yet,” Justin told us, “We have jumped head over heels down injection wells. We currently have 181,000 oil field wastewater injection wells in the U.S. That’s 11 for every Starbucks.” 

At the same time, the oil and gas industry has worked to get rid of its waste by rebranding it as harmless, even helpful. Farmers are spreading it on cropland and pasture; companies are using it in de-icer, which will only lead to more environmental contamination. With such tactics, “it’s no longer waste,” Justin said. “You can actually, even, potentially make money off it, and make people think that it’s a good thing.”

The Oil Industry Relies on Keeping Workers in the Dark

Throughout his reporting, Justin learned that not only is the industry careless with its waste; it’s also careless with the workers handling that waste. 

For example, workers must clean out the tanks that transport oil and gas waste. Over time, a sludge forms at the bottom of the tank — hyper-concentrating contaminants like radioactive radium, lead, and polonium. 

As Justin uncovered, many of the workers cleaning out these tanks have no clue the sludge is radioactive. They receive no protective equipment and no training. For many, it costs them their lives.

Justin’s reporting revealed countless stories of workers now battling cancer and other serious health problems. Moreover, the industry purposely recruits vulnerable workers least likely to ask questions or make a fuss, such as those just released from prison. 

“I think the book really helps flip this narrative that the industry has relied on — that we’re trying to destroy jobs if we’re coming at this industry with an environmental critique,” Justin said. Well, no. The thing that they’ve harmed most significantly is their own workforce.”

Together, We Can Put a Stop to the Industry’s Harms

For decades, the oil and gas industry has wreaked havoc on our health and our planet, and Petroleum-238 uncovers a new layer of damage. By exposing these harms, we are gaining the necessary knowledge to fight the industry and protect our communities. 

Justin emphasized that this threat cuts across political divides and focuses on poignant, widely felt injustices: the inability to work safe and healthy jobs, illnesses like cancer caused by corporate greed, and the dangers to our shared food and water. 

Together, we are creating a broad-based, powerful grassroots movement. Building this movement is the only antidote to the decades of political influence that has allowed the oil and gas industry to poison workers and communities.

We’re joining neighbor with neighbor, sharing our experiences and all we’ve learned, and building people power to pressure our leaders to act. From keeping drilling out of beloved parks, to calling for an end to all fossil fuel use and production, Food & Water Watch is working to defend our families from oil and gas waste and all the industry’s harms.

Power our fight to shut down the fossil fuel industry and hold corporations accountable!

Watch the Full Event

Check out the recording of our booktalk with Justin.

Resources Shared at the Event


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