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The Radioactive Underbelly Of The Oilfield

The oil and gas industry has been promising great jobs for years but oilfield workers are risking their health for those paychecks.

In towns and cities across northern Appalachia industrial and manufacturing jobs have emptied out and men and women hungry for work have been drawn by the beckoning call of the oil and gas industry. Over the past decade that industry has tapped vigorously into the Marcellus and Utica, two massively rich gas layers that underlie the region. But these workers don’t always end up drilling for oil and pulling pipe, wellhead jobs stamped with a certain gritty glamour upon the American imagination. They often end up at a far seedier and even less regulated end of the oilfield, working in the largely unknown underworld of radioactive oilfield waste. Scooping it up and hauling it hither and thither in trucks.

It was just about ten years ago that drillers—many of them from prominent oilfield states like Texas and Oklahoma—first descended upon eastern Ohio to tap the Utica and Marcellus, opening up an unknown yet lucrative new world for Tom McKnight, who had a wife in healthcare and three college-age kids to help support.

“I was selling John Deere tractors, then I got fired at John Deere and went to work selling used cars,” says McKnight. “Meanwhile I am looking at these hillbillies in cowboy boots and cowboy hats coming in with these big-ass pay stubs and buying these expensive trucks. And I am thinking, I want one of those big-ass checks.”

While out for a ride with his wife on a Sunday afternoon in 2013 the couple drove through the parking lot of one oil and gas waste management company and McKnight happened to encounter the general manager. Next thing he knew he was seated in the man’s office for an interview. “No phone calls, no introductions, no points of reference, no nothing,” says McKnight. “He was just happy to get somebody, and there I was, a brine hauler.”

While the oil and gas industry innocently refers to the material Tom regularly hauled as “brine,” or “salt water,” “produced water,” or even just, “water,” a 2016 report with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) shows it to be extremely toxic. Levels of the radioactive element radium in “brine” can be 5,700 times the EPA safe drinking water limit and 443 times what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would allow in the discharge pipe of a nuclear power plant.

Meanwhile, according to a lengthy commentary released last spring by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, the sludge that settles out at the bottom of ponds of “produced water” can contain radium at levels more than 1,000 times background—the natural radiation of a given place—and more than 200 times what would be permissible at a Superfund site, the nation’s infamous highly toxic waste sites.

But Tom knew nothing about any of this when he sat in that manager’s office. Or from 2013 to the end of 2017, when he worked as a brine hauler in the heart of the Marcellus oil and gas field, a sweet-spot of production that runs from northwestern West Virginia up through southwestern Pennsylvania. Waste spewed up by fracked wells in the first weeks of production is filled with toxic chemicals from the fracturing, as well as heavy metals, used fracking sand, and naturally occurring radioactivity from the formation. The slurry is referred to as “flowback” and stored on site in large “frack tanks” or wastewater ponds called “containments.” The brine or produced water that comes later—and will flow for the rest of the well’s productive life—is stored in more permanent brine tanks on site.

After decades of spewing brine into ponds and bayous, the most popular current manner for disposing of brine is to shoot it at high pressure back into the earth via “injection wells.” Much of the brine in Pennsylvania is disposed of at injection wells in Ohio, and the sites McKnight was servicing were no different. He regularly hauled his oil and gas waste to eastern Ohio, constantly crisscrossing the region in his brine truck.

“I had a lot of fun with it, there was just so many brine trucks out there and so much inexperience and so much of a ‘Damn the Torpedoes, full speed ahead’ attitude,” says McKnight. “Occasionally, I worked 36 hours straight. I made $86,000 one year and took a month off, it was too good to be true. I paid off my Visa that I never had paid off since like 1982. We could move out of my mother-in-law’s and buy our own house. All my children were coming up in age, one was going to college, one was already in college, one was getting ready to go, and now I could help put them through. I could peel ‘em off a couple hundred bucks for groceries. The carrot out there was really big, and I sure appreciated it.”

But as is the case with all brine haulers I have been in touch with in my reporting, training on many of the toxic constituents in brine, including radioactivity, was minimal. “I specifically remember someone in our orientation class bringing up radiation and the guy putting on the class held up his cellphone and said, ‘You will never get more radiation in this job than you are getting off of one of these right here,’” says McKnight. “We all thought, ‘Great, nothing to worry about there.’”

Loading up a brine truck with radioactive toxic waste is more difficult than simply packing organic vegetables into a truck bound for Whole Foods, and yet as far as federal regulations go under the Department of Transportation the activities are essentially the same. A decades-old industry exemption passed in 1980 — known as the Bentsen and Bevill Amendments to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act — classifies oil and gas waste as non-hazardous, thereby enabling oilfield brine, despite being radioactive and filled with toxic carcinogens, to be packed into a truck without a hazardous material placard and driven around by a driver like McKnight without the proper training in handling hazardous materials or the appropriate gear to be handling them. In fact, neither the Department of Transportation nor the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have any idea how many oilfield brine trucks are on the road, what they are hauling, or exactly what these drivers are potentially being exposed to.

But sitting in the truck’s cab, steering a load of toxic radioactive waste to an injection well may be the least concerning part of the job for workers like McKnight. “The dirtiest stuff that I hauled on a regular basis was flowback,” he says. “Sometimes it was black.” Flowback is piped into a series of frack tanks but it is a sloppy transfer and a brine hauler like Tom would spend a lot of time, as he says, “getting rained on with this stuff.” He adds, “That water is hot, like bathwater hot, it’s freaky.”

An even nastier job is cleaning out the frack tanks, which are regularly filled with flowback. “Some people want them spit clean before they leave the site,” says McKnight. But they are often filled with several feet of toxic sludge and the contaminated water dammed behind. Vacuum trucks, which resemble brine trucks but with more massive pumps, are called in to clean this waste, but these trucks are expensive, and so brine haulers like McKnight—the cheap infantry men of the oilfield—may be set to work on the frack tank sludge.

“The one time I was sent to clean out frack tanks I opened the manhole in the front and stuck my head in just so I could get the two inch hose in and guide it down to the very bottom of the tank so I could clean them out and get as much water as possible out of them,” says McKnight. “The end of that day my head underneath the hard hat and above the neckline looked like I been down in Florida out in the sun all day, and the little spot between my gloves and where my shirt started—the only other part of my skin that was directly exposed to the wank, was also all red like a sunburn. At the time I thought maybe that was a reaction to the salt, but now I’m wondering if it wasn’t a radiation burn?”

Other workers had even grimier jobs, such as the “swampers” McKnight describes. They had to crawl inside the manhole of a brine truck with a shovel and squeegee to clean out the gunk that accumulates on the bottom—loaded, again according to the government’s own reports, with radium. (The CDC regards radium as a “bone-seeking” radioactive element because it has a similar chemical makeup to calcium and if accidentally inhaled or ingested will end up in your bones.)

“Some swampers really spent a lot of time in those tanks,” says McKnight. “They could easily be in there for over an hour. Even though you couldn’t stay in there a minute without choking. But it was a challenge to those guys, ‘Oh, I can do it, I am tough.’ If you complain to the boss they will say, ‘Shut up, don’t like it, go home, you are lucky to have a job.’”

These workers wore a standard oilfield uniform called an FR, plus a hard hat and were supplied with yellow neoprene rain suits, a face mask, and a respirator. But most of them don’t wear the respirator. Management had the attitude like, “Hey we can lead a horse to water, but we can’t force them to drink—if they won’t wear the PPE, we are not gonna force them to do it,” says McKnight. “I seen guys go in there just with their T-shirts and blue jeans on and a face mask. You know some guys are tough, they don’t care.”

In 2017 McKnight stopped hauling brine, and in 2019 he had a weird experience where a banana didn’t go down right and was laying “heavy” in him. His chest was hurting and thinking a heart attack might be coming on he drove himself to the emergency room, but the doctor said there was nothing wrong with his heart. Then they did a CT scan. “They sent someone to get me morphine, and someone else to bring in a preacher,” McKnight says. He had a six-pound tumor wrapped around his thymus, an organ of the lymph system located in the neck.

He was diagnosed with thymoma cancer. Although he received a successful operation to remove the tumor, doctors later discovered nodules on his lung, and a growth on a bone in his hip. Survival rates, McKnight found on the American Cancer Society’s website, are scary. Odds are by 2024 he will be dead. He does not believe his cancer is linked to his oil and gas work, and indeed, many cancers linked to radioactivity take a number of years or decades to develop. But as he describes it, if you have no idea you are being exposed to radioactivity, you also have no idea how to avoid its harms.

“If you are forewarned with what’s going to happen you can deal with it, but if you ignore it, it’s just silently out there, polluting our environment, getting our people sick,” says McKnight. And the idea that the waste he hauled is hazardous under the laws of science, but not under the laws of the U.S. government, lies about as well in his stomach as that banana.

“It’s like I’ve always told my kids,” says McKnight. “There’s a difference between right, and right to the letter of the law.”

A version of Tom McKnight’s story originally appeared in Public Herald, along with stories from other industry whistleblowers.

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