On Fort Worth’s North Side, tons of copper, aluminum, old cars, sheet metal, and steel pipe arrive each day at huge scrapyards. According to several owners of such yards, those deliveries now routinely include truckloads of pipes and other metal scrap from Barnett Shale gas-drilling operations.
As with every load of scrap metal that arrives, those trucks’ contents are tested for radioactivity. “And the stuff that comes in from the gas fields comes in hot,” one owner said — and therefore gets rejected.
Other scrapyard owners confirmed that experience. But gas industry officials deny it.
“If you think about drilling pipe,” said Joe Rauch, public information officer for Nabors Drilling, “there is constantly circulating drilling mud effectively cleaning the hole and the pipe itself, so there is no way for any radioactivity to build up in those pipes.”
A state official whose agency deals with such contaminated materials said that gas-drilling pipes do build up radioactivity, but to much lower levels than oil-field pipe and that the buildup is easily removed and shouldn’t be a problem for scrapyards. But scrapyards sell to the big smelting plants, and because those plants won’t accept it, the scrapyards won’t either.
No one has yet studied radioactive loads carried by machinery and piping used in the Barnett Shale. It’s an important question because of the total volume of pipe and other equipment used in gas drilling in North Texas and something that may become a big issue down the road — as it was and is with oil-field equipment.
“You just look at West Texas oil fields and see how much machinery is just sitting there, and imagine the same thing happening to the pipe used in this city, and you’ll get the picture,” said an owner of one Fort Worth scrapyard. “And all that metal is just sitting in West Texas because nobody will touch it. It’s too hot, too radioactive to go near.”
In the oil fields, he explained, some of the pipe pulled from old wells “is 100 years old, and those pipes are just saturated with radiation. And that’s why you see oil fields just littered with metal that’s never going to be moved. It’s got nowhere to go and so it’s just going to sit there, hot, until it rusts away. And that’s going to leave the ground contaminated, of course.”
The radiation he’s talking about is called NORM — naturally occurring radioactive material, which exists in many things, from granite to peanut butter, although drilling activists are quick to point out that “naturally occurring” doesn’t mean “safe.” In oil fields and in the flowback water from the hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits — as well as in the “produced” water that comes up with oil and gas during extraction — it exists most commonly as radium 226 and radium 228, decay products from uranium.
Greg Hughes, who worked for two years at a nuclear facility, said that the drilling process can concentrate that radiation. “Now if you look at the water that comes through the pipe, let’s say a gallon of it, it’s not particularly dangerous,” said Hughes, now a member of the North Central Texas Communities Alliance, an activist group that is a frequent critic of the drilling industry. “But as that liquid moves through the pipe, you get scaling on the inside of those pipes, which is kind of a naturally occurring concentration of that radioactive material. And that’s when it becomes dangerous.”
There’s an important difference between oil and gas pipes, said Richard Ratliff, manager of radiation safety licensing for the Texas Department of Health Services, which oversees the decontamination of oil and gas pipelines, among other things. “Any time you drill through strata that has uranium in it, you are going to see NORM. And that builds up in pipes as scaling. Now when the scaling gets thick — and I’ve seen six-inch pipes that have been reduced to two inches because of scaling — you have to pull that pipe. At that point you can either dispose of it, or you can have the pipe decontaminated and then work with it again.” There are two landfills in Texas licensed to bury contaminated metals.
The decontamination takes place at one of five or more plants licensed to do that work in Texas. The pipes or other machinery contaminated with NORM are put into a controlled environment and then blasted either with sand or high-pressure air. “All of that air and solid debris is collected, and then the solid waste is taken for disposal,” Ratliff said.
But with gas pipes, he said, the buildup is more often in thin layers on the inside of the pipe. “And gas companies might just clean that with acid and then collect the contaminated acid and dispose of that. Or they send them to a licensed facility for decontamination.” Disposal of the solid waste or acid generally involves adding enough liquid to make a slurry and then shooting it down injection wells.
The bottom line, he said, is that pipes contaminated with NORM “are one of the lower risks we deal with.”
But if NORM from the gas fields is not a serious risk — other than to the people who work with the pipes regularly — why would the companies that trade in used metal refuse to deal with it? And why do the large smelting houses, like Chaparral Steel in Midlothian, refuse to accept NORM-contaminated steel?
“There really is no reason for either the scrapyards or the steel mills to reject pipes and machinery with NORM,” Ratliff said. “The reason is that when you smelt that material, the NORM products wind up in the slag and not in the new steel or whatever you’re making. There is a huge difference between that and, say, contamination that comes from cobalt. Cobalt radiation stays in the steel, and so it winds up contaminating anything you make from that contaminated metal.”
It’s probably the memory of having had to spend exorbitant amounts of money on contamination cleanups that has made the smelting industry so gun-shy when it comes to radiation, he said. “And with no smelting house willing to take NORM-contaminated material, it makes sense that the scrapyards won’t take it. What are they going to do with it?” The yards sell their metal to the smelters.
Chaparral is so wary of NORM that its safety and environmental requirements, available on the company’s web site, note that “if a shipment is processed at a Chaparral plant site to remove NORM (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material) materials, the VENDOR will be responsible for all related processing costs … .”
“There is no question that there is a potential health hazard from NORM for people who work around the pipes,” said Scott Anderson, senior policy advisor for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas office. He’s a former executive vice president and general counsel of the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association. “And the people who clean pipes are exposed to levels of NORM that are potentially dangerous.”
On one hand, he said, studies of NORM done in the Texas oil fields in the 1980s and 1990s indicated that “concentrations of NORM in the pipes and equipment were not a significant health hazard to the general public.”
But NORM levels caused by hydraulic fraccing are generally higher than in oil-well flowback, he said — the same chemicals, but in higher concentrations. He noted a recent New York Times report of a study by the American Petroleum Institute, never before published, that suggested such radiation could concentrate in Gulf of Mexico fish, making them unsafe to eat. The study was one of thousands published on the Times’ web site regarding the natural gas industry throughout the country.
Anderson said the study referred to in the Times story is the only one he’s heard about. “That [more studies] might be something that ought to be done as long as we’re going to dig all these gas wells,” he said.