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Writer warns of radioactive hazards of oil and gas work

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — A Rolling Stone writer was joined by an expert in the field for a community discussion on the hazards posed to workers and communities by the often-overlooked hazard of radiation associated with oil and gas work.

Justin Nobel, a freelance science journalist, said he spent 20 months working on the story “America’s Radioactive Secret,” uncovering the impact of radioactive material in extracted oil and gas, as well as the lingering contamination of the equipment used to extract the material and transport it. Nobel was joined Friday evening at Ohio University Eastern’s Shannon Hall by scientist Julie Weatherington-Rice, who has spent decades studying the fields of geology and soil science.

Weatherington-Rice recounted a time in the 1960s in Morrel County, north of Columbus, Ohio, when oil and gas development was just beginning. She said lack of oversight of the oil and gas companies took a toll on the communities.

“It was the wild west,” she said. “No regulations. They were buying family cemetery plots and putting rigs up. They were putting rigs on townhouse lanes. … Everybody’s plants were turning brown from the salt. In 1986, the state of Ohio said they were going to ‘do something’ about the companies, make them more responsible, get rules into place, allow for local zoning, so they put together an oil and gas regulatory commission. … I was on that commission, and I’d like to say we got some very good things done on that commission, including a minority report that said, ‘Let’s not spread brine on the roads anymore.’ And the (Ohio Department of Natural Resources) tried to stop it, saying the legislature didn’t know anything about it, so they wouldn’t stop it.”

Weatherington-Rice also touched on the radioactivity of materials such as barium and uranium in the earth, and the time it takes those materials to decay — often thousands to billions of years.

“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” she said.

Nobel described Weatherington-Rice as an expert in the field.

“She has been studying the topic of brine since the late 1970s, is focused on geology, focused on water quality, and she’s done a lot of work in Ohio,” Nobel said. “I’ve had many sources in this story, dozens of scientists I’ve spoken to, but Julie is the prominent one.”

In his own part of the discussion, Nobel described how certain oil and gas deposits — not all of them, but the Marcellus Shale included — contain radioactive materials, as described in a 1960 report on the subject.

“I thought this was somehow a fracking thing — no, it’s actually a natural gas thing,” Nobel said. “Not all formations are radioactive, but the Marcellus happens to have a high (energy) signature. … There’s an affinity for the organic material that makes your oil and gas and the radioactivity…

“Initially, these shales were looked at not for their oil, but for their uranium content.”

Nobel and Weatherington-Rice both stressed that the radioactive material present pose a threat both to communities where oil and gas are extracted and to the workers who interact on a more personal level.

“What came up in the reporting, what the first line of concern is, is really the workers,” Nobel said. “Workers are not receiving proper protection. The brine trucks that we see all the time are not just carrying water, as some workers are told. They’re carrying a substance that has toxic salts, toxic heavy metals, and naturally occurring radioactivity, through the element radium. What I found in the report is that there’s enough radium in one Marcellus brine truck to appropriately be labeled a radioactive hazard. That means the driver doesn’t know what they’re carrying — if it were labeled appropriately, that driver would need hazmat training and couldn’t go on certain roads, by schools, by reservoirs …

“The workers in this community have the most to worry about,” he added.

During the panel discussion, Nobel said he had a contact with ODNR, which had an apparent don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy with regard to radioactive testing, which is self-reported.

“My contact said, ‘It doesn’t matter that the scientists know. It doesn’t matter that there’s knowledge of it. All that matters to make the regulations kick into effect is if the trucks are tested at the well, and it’s supposed to be tested there. If it shows up and it’s above regulatory limits, then it must be (labeled) as radioactive, and suddenly a lot of things change …’

“So I asked, ‘How is that not happening, then? You must know, just like I know.’ He said, ‘Oh, no, we don’t test. It’s a self-regulating process. They test and then send us the results.’ I asked, ‘What happens if they’re not tested?’ His response was, ‘What if they’re breaking the law? Yeah, I guess that could happen, then.’ That was a big revelation — there’s just so little information on this, that we’re grasping at regulations.”

Mike Chadsey, public relations director with the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, disputed Nobel’s stance prior to the event, saying that worker safety is a higher priority for companies than Nobel apparently believes.

“I read the piece, thought long and hard about it, talked to some regulators about it, and I just don’t think (Nobel) understands exactly what he’s talking about,” Chadsey said. “He talks about three different states, and particularly in Ohio, our process has been reviewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and we got high marks for our strict regulation and the enforcement of that regulation. The thing we take pride in is how we protect our workers, and he treats it as if we don’t care. I think he misunderstands because he’s never worked in it, but this isn’t just an industry, it’s a family. …

“We have trainings throughout the year, every month. To say we go out of our way to avoid this just isn’t correct. That’s the part we took offense to. We can have a disagreement on policies and regulations, but you have to remember where this guy’s coming from. He used to write for an anti-oil and gas blog. He’s not pro-industry. He’s not a former regulator. He’s a guy with an opinion,” Chadsey said.

Nicole Jacobs, writing for the website Energy In Depth, also disputed Nobel’s story, saying that he appeared to pick and choose his sources, amplifying a “Keep It In The Ground” message.

“This isn’t the first time Rolling Stone or Justin Nobel have misled the public. Rolling Stone suffered ‘a loss of reputation, journalistic credibility and $3 million,’ when it was forced to retract and admit that a story it ran in 2015 was completely made up,” she wrote, citing a 2015 case in which Rolling Stone published a now-retracted piece on an alleged assault at the University of Virginia, resulting in three libel lawsuits.

“Similarly, Nobel’s and the magazine’s coverage on oil and natural gas — whether it was blaming infant deaths on drilling in Utah, portraying pipelines as underregulated and unsafe, or misleadingly praising a compendium full of debunked research as a ‘new’ ‘authoritative study,’ among others — has been high on KIITG rhetoric, but short on actual facts,” she added, citing a series of Energy In Depth articles rebuffing Nobel’s articles.

“The health and safety of its workers is a top priority for the oil and natural gas industry across the country. That’s a fact that continues to be demonstrated through in-depth trainings and procedures, the sole purpose of which is to protect the people whose work fuels the world. Nobel’s latest piece is one in a long line of biased imitations of investigative journalism that push a ‘Keep It In the Ground’ narrative, while ignoring science,” she concludes in her article.

“This isn’t the first time Mr. Nobel or the magazine has pushed a ‘Keep it in the Ground’ narrative, this is old hat. These claims fly in the face of findings from a myriad of researchers and experts in regulatory agencies across Appalachia that have determined oil and natural gas activity is not a health concern. The oil and gas industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the country — from wellhead to burner — and that strict oversight includes the waste disposal process,” added Dan Alfaro, a spokesman for Energy In Depth.

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