Radioactivity Reading Appear Very High at Former Site of Fairmont Brine Processing Facility

by admin on September 19, 2023

Soil samples around the facility show unusually high radiation readings!

Former Marcellus Frack Water (Brine) Processing Location Now Polluted With Radioactive Residues

From an Article by Justin Nobel, Truthdig, September 18, 2023

It’s around 4 p.m. one fine summer afternoon on a West Virginia hilltop when Dr. Yuri Gorby, a former Department of Energy scientist, gets the first clicks on his Geiger counter. He is wearing a full-body plastic protective suit, and using the device to survey a span of odd brownish dirt near the dilapidated main building of Fairmont Brine Processing, a fracking waste treatment plant that ceased operations in 2017.

“These are the highest readings I’ve ever seen!” he shouts. “You want to come over here!”

I follow Ohio organizer Jill Hunkler past a graffiti-covered security shack and a vaguely Satanic-looking circle of busted up furniture to find the 62-year-old scientist wearing a look of deep concern. The clicking — hauntingly familiar from Hollywood depictions of Chernobyl and post-Apocalyptic scenarios — continues to quicken as Gorby walks toward the flame-scarred husk of the frack waste processing building. Bending over the odd brownish dirt, the clicks become furious beeps, like a smoke alarm gone haywire, before merging into a high-pitched wail, a sound reminiscent of an emergency room patient flatlining. Gorby freezes. A microbiologist who worked for years at a federal radiological lab in Washington state, he understands very well the meaning of the nerve-rattling screech.

“The unit is maxed out,” he says.

His Geiger counter, known as the Ludlum 3000 Digital Survey Meter, is reading around 7,000 counts per minute, or just under 2 millirems per hour. Working at those levels for one week (never mind the 70- or 80-hour weeks common in the oil and gas industry) could take a worker over yearly safety limits set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

These people have no idea they are living beside a fracking waste treatment plant.

The radioactive dirt is far from the day’s only disturbing discovery. The moat of scuzzy water surrounding the processing building also reads radioactive. So, too, the mud that coats the floor of a second building, littered with empty beer cans that testify to the site’s popularity as a party spot, presumably for local teenagers. “Kids are screwing there,” a former oilfield worker would later tell me, pointing to a soiled mattress we found at the site, with the authority of an Appalachian who grew up partying at shuttered industrial sites. Indeed, condoms litter the facility grounds.

Opposite the treatment building, a pond of radioactive water is contained by a grimy white liner stained orange from the metals in the brine. Near it, in the unloading area, we find a crumpled bathing suit. “My god,” says Hunkler, “did they go swimming!?” And on the other side of the unloading area, rows of gigantic red, blue and green containers known as frack tanks send the Geiger counter into another string of beeps. Next to the tanks are a set of open dumpsters filled with bags of trash, metal scraps and wet heaps of yellowish-white goop that resembles oatmeal. “I hope you didn’t touch that?” says Gorby of the goop. “It’s highly radioactive.”

That dirt and water samples from Fairmont Brine Processing reveal “deeply concerning” levels of radioactive materials — radium, thorium, polonium, bismuth and various isotopes of radioactive lead — would be news to the vast majority of people in Fairmount, West Virginia, the largest town in Marion County. When it rains, runoff from the site flows down the hill and toward Fairmont’s 18,000 residents. The homes are not only visible from the abandoned plant, they are so close you can hear their lawn mowers and the barking of their dogs. These people have no idea they are living beside a fracking waste treatment plant so radioactive that a levelheaded Homeland Security official, adhering to counterterrorism protocols, would order the place wrapped in tape and direct the nearest radiological SWAT team to round up the bad actors responsible for the mess. Nor do the towns further to the north know that the runoff threatens to contaminate the Monongahela River, which flows into Pennsylvania and provides drinking water for Pittsburgh.

During six years researching my forthcoming book about oil- and gas-field radioactivity, I have visited a number of such sketchy sites across the country. In Colorado’s Denver-Julesburg, a company called Mayberry Farms has spread oilfield waste directly on farmland; in the Permian oil patch of West Texas, a food stand offers tacos in the parking lot of a fracking wastewater disposal site; in a heavily fracked area south of Pittsburgh, a towering landfill of oilfield waste looms over a county fairground. But Fairmont Brine is like nothing that I — or Gorby, who has spent the last decade helping environmental groups track radioactive oilfield contamination — have ever seen. In the booming gas-field that is the Marcellus-Utica, the industry has been granted so many exemptions, government regulators are so ineffectual and human health and safety is of so little value, that somehow a miniature Chernobyl has been created and left unattended, its radioactive dust and dirt freely blowing in the breeze, just outside the city limits of an American college town. There are no gates, no guards, not even a “No Trespassing” sign. The numerous small yellow notices with radioactivity symbols planted on fences, telephone poles and random equipment, blend into the site’s colorful graffiti, just more detritus in a toxic dump.

Over the course of three separate visits this summer, Gorby, Hunkler, myself and a Pittsburgh filmmaker named Colin Sheehy entered the site unencumbered — just as countless locals and scrappers have done before us. On each of our visits, the busted-up furniture was arranged in a different manner, suggesting the site’s ongoing interest to local visitors.

But unlike them, we arrived armed with protective suits and facemasks, knowledge about radioactivity, and a fancy Geiger counter. “This is how the industry operates — they just go away and leave the mess,” says Hunkler, director of Ohio Valley Allies, a grassroots group active in communities threatened by fracking across the Marcellus-Utica. “This is what’s going to happen everywhere.”

Most Americans do not realize that fuel is far from the only thing that comes to the surface at an oil or gas well, be it a modern fracked well, or an older conventional one. Every day, 2.9 billion gallons of toxic and often radioactive liquids are brought to the surface at oil and gas fields across the country. The industry has a number of innocent names for this waste: oilfield brine, produced water, salt water. Sometimes, they simply call it “water.” While it is natural, brine contains extraordinary levels of salts, toxic heavy metals like arsenic, lead and strontium. It can also be rich in the radioactive element radium.

Beginning in the 1860s and continuing into the 1980s, oilfield brine was simply dumped into unlined pits, ditches, creeks and bayous. Today, approximately 97% of it goes to controversial facilities called injection wells, where it’s shot into the deep earth. But injection wells cause earthquakes, and have recently been found to be leaking across Ohio and putting drinking water resources at risk. They have become increasingly despised by nearby communities. In response to growing public concerns, a shadowy network of facilities has sprouted across the nation to treat and process oilfield brine, transforming it, operators claim, into distilled water for new fracking operations, road salts, and even, according to the claims of one industry engineer, food-grade salt. However, the oil and gas industry, often shielded by state and federal regulators, has neglected to appropriately address the radioactivity found in brine.

A fracking waste treatment plant under the name AOP Clearwater first opened operations in Fairmont in 2009. The following year, an article in Marcellus Drilling News, an aggressively pro-industry news site, called the hilltop site “a big success.” The salt, according to one West Virginia business paper, was being sold “in Marion County to independent contractors and the city.” But by 2015, AOP Clearwater was gone. New Pittsburgh-based management, adopting the name Fairmont Brine Processing, filed plans with the state to operate a shipshape facility that “treats, cleans and recycles used brine water.” Salts removed from the brine were to be “sold as products,” though the details of these business transactions were not given. “Distilled water” produced by the plant would be sold to natural gas companies to frack new wells, or “discharged to the Monongahela River” under a federal permitting program intended to ensure toxic pollutants don’t enter waterways.

That program, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, does not check for radioactivity. Thanks to a 1980 amendment under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, known as the Bentsen and Bevill exemption, the agency has actually declared oilfield waste nonhazardous.

In October 2016, Fairmont Brine president Brian Kalt, speaking in front of the House Committee on Energy and Natural Resources at the Oklahoma state capitol, promoted his superior solution for disposing of the oil field’s wastewater. According to a 2016 article in the Pittsburgh Business Times, Fairmont had secured a $90 million credit “to build a new water processing and salt production operation” in southwestern Pennsylvania. But, apparently, the plan never came to fruition. “I am writing to inform you that Fairmont Brine Processing, LLC (Fairmont) does not have the cash flow to fulfill its obligations,” stated a letter to one of its vendors in February 2017, a month after the company suspended most of its operations.

At that point, the company had an even more serious issue on hand. In January 2016, the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection learned that 47 sealed containers of radioactive oilfield waste had been illegally dumped at a landfill in eastern Kentucky separated from a high school and middle school by a state highway. The waste, reported the Louisville Courier-Journal, came from “a West Virginia company.” It was Fairmont Brine.

Another issue was the company’s air permit. Filed in 2016 with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, radioactivity is mentioned only once in its 222 pages. That one reference, meanwhile, demonstrates an ignorance of basic radiation science. The permit application notes that the brine treated at the plant contains radium, but states that, because of the element’s long half-life, “there should not be significant radiation.” In reality, radium is a carcinogenic radioactive metal moderately soluble in water and known by the medical community as a “bone-seeker.” Once it gets inside a human body — by accidental inhalation as dust, ingestion in contaminated drinking water or workers with waste on their hands smoking a cigarette — some of it will lodge in the bones and can lead to lethal cancers. The main isotope of radium found in brine, radium-226, has a half-life of 1,600 years. Data from Pennsylvania shows Marcellus brine to be more radioactive than any other oil and gas field in the nation.

Does the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection care that Fairmont Brine drastically underplayed radioactive elements in their permit applications? Apparently not. In 2019, department spokesperson Casey Korbini told me the agency is not monitoring for radioactivity at frack waste treatment plants. “This does not mean that radionuclides are prohibited,” Korbini said. “They are simply not regulated.” The Environmental Protection Agency, the agency has told me several times, does not regulate oilfield radioactivity at all. And thanks to a 1980 amendment under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, known as the Bentsen and Bevill exemption, the agency has actually declared oilfield waste nonhazardous.

NOTE ~ This Article continues as reported in Truthdig, September 18, 2023.

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