Environmentalists Score Victory: Court Says DEQ Must Test and Monitor Produced Waters, Protect Public From Dangerous Pollutants

Jun 13, 2011, 13:21 ET from Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN)

NEW ORLEANS, June 13, 2011 /PRNewswire/ -- The Louisiana State Court of Appeal has ordered the State Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to test the environmental impact of discharges from "produced 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.

For the full decision go to: http://www.kreweoftruth.com/web/data/documents/2010_CA_1640_Decision_Appeal.pdf

This is a major victory for LEAN and other clean water advocates in Louisiana – a state known for its industry-friendly leanings. The Court's decision recognizes the merit of LEAN's allegation that dangerous amounts of radioactive material are released into the Gulf waters every year when commercial oil and gas discharges – including deck drainage, produced water, well treatment and work-over fluids, hydrostatic test and other waste waters related to exploration, development and production by oil and gas companies – are dumped directly into the sea.

"The crisis in the Gulf goes well beyond the oil and dispersant from last year's BP spill," said New Orleans attorney Stuart Smith. "There is also lots of radioactive material being dumped into our waters year after year by oil and gas companies. And as we know, radioactive material poses a long-term threat because it takes so long, in many cases hundreds of years, to break down."

According to LEAN, the production of oil and gas generates several different waste streams. 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. In an uncontrolled sub-sea release, like that from BP's runaway Macondo Well, NORM spews directly into the water. Thus, last year's spill released an unprecedented amount of NORM directly into Gulf waters, exacerbating an already dangerous situation.

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.

A "secret industry study" from the American Petroleum Institute (API) written in 1990 and exposed in an exclusive New 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 will likely be acute and long-lasting to the Gulf ecosystem – possibly lingering for hundreds of years," said Smith. 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."

LEAN and Smith have independently tested Gulf waters for NORM levels 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, LEAN. (225) 588-5059

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SOURCE Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN)