Martha Reclamation Program: Dump and Run

Toxic Soup: Ashland's Radioactive Sludge Pits

Toxic Soup: Radiation at Blaine Elementary School

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Radioactive Pollution

Naturally occurring radioactive material, or "NORM," is a term used to describe radioactive material that occurs naturally but is radioactively enhanced or concentrated through human activity. Radioactivity associated with NORM in waste generated by the exploration and production of gas and oil is produced by the decay of uranium and thorium. Radium-226, a decay product of uranium which occurs in the Devonian shale that is a source rock for much of the oil found in Kentucky, is the decay product of most concern, because unlike the highly insoluble uranium, the radium (Ra226) is water and brine-soluble and is brought to the land surface and often concentrated as a by-product of the production of oil. The process of development of the oil resources, including the waterflooding of producing formations, and surface activities to separate oil from wastewaters, has resulted in the surface disposal of concentrated levels of radium-226 in disposal pits, and the concentration of radium-226 on land areas associated with tank batteries used for separation of oil and produce (brine) water, at concentrations which exceed levels at which the Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that action should be taken to require removal and proper management of the radioactive materials and contaminated soil.

The principal contaminant of concern in the radiation problems associated with oil production activities appears to be radium-226, which was noted by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to have "a number of physical and chemical features that make it a particularly potent hazard to human health:"

* It emits both alpha and gamma radiation
* It behaves much like calcium and is incorporated into the bones in the human body
* It is a known carcinogen
* It has a half-life of 1,620 years
* It undergoes radioactive decay to produce radon - another hazardous substance.
* Radium-226 can enter both aquatic and terrestrial food chains leading to human consumption.

The current level of information regarding the extent of the problem of oilfield radioactive wastes in the state is virtually nonexistent, and it is not known beyond the Martha oil field, whether a problem exists with oilfield waste radioactivity. Data developed on the Martha oil field through field surveys conducted by the Cabinet for Human Resources and the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet, as well as a consultant for an oil company in the area, indicates the existence of numerous sites where levels of radium-226 has been detected at excessive levels. These areas include apparently dozens of brine/sludge pits in the Martha oil field that were formerly used for separation of oil and produced water (brine), and for disposal of oil-related sludges and clays as well as other land areas which currently or formerly supported tank batteries (oil/water separators) or piping and equipment storage, many of which exhibit levels of radium-226 as much as hundreds of times above the levels deemed unacceptable due to health consequences by the United States Environmental Protection Agency for human exposure.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

History of the Martha Oil Field

We know a little bit about the history of the area and would like to share it with you.  The village of Martha was named after Martha Skaggs, nee Cothron, a Cherokee who married Peter Skaggs in Virginia in 1788.  They moved to the “head of Blaine” in Lawrence County, Kentucky in 1804.  Martha Skaggs died in 1865 in Martha.

The Martha Oil Field was discovered in 1919 and produced roughly 19 million barrels of oil prior to 1955 when a waterflood project was begun by Ashland Oil to extract more oil.  Over 6 million barrels of oil was recovered using water injection between 1955 and 1970.  At this point, Ashland estimated an additional 30 million barrels of oil remained to be recovered by injection of brine and inert gas.  They considered the Martha Oil Field to be an opportunity to test the field-wide application of these enhanced oil recovery techniques.

Unfortunately the oil in the Martha Oil Field lies in Devonian shale, which contains low-level concentrations of radium-226, a radioactive element (naturally occurring radioactive material, N.O.R.M.) with a half-life of 1600 years.  Radium-226 is highly water soluble.  The water, brine and inert gas injections into the Devonian shale concentrated the radium-226 and brought it to the surface where the oil was separated from the brine.  The radioactive brine was dumped into sludge pits and disposed of in Blaine Creek.  As a result, oil wells, pressure wells, tank batteries, sludge pits and disposal pathways were contaminated with concentrated radioactive material.  Also, pipes and tanks that were in prolonged contact with the radioactive material were contaminated and strewn about the oil field.

The radiation contamination was discovered in 1988 when pipes hauled from Ashland Inc. tripped a scrap yard’s radiation detectors.  Ashland contended the radiation was harmless and began removing old pipes and tons of contaminated soil from the area to a designated disposal site.  Area residents claimed their health and property were at risk and filed lawsuits against Ashland Oil.

Ashland Oil Exploration merged with Marathon Oil in 1998 to form Marathon Ashland Petroleum, LLC.  In 2005 Ashland sold its share in Marathon Ashland Petroleum to Marathon Oil to exit the petroleum business.

We can’t imagine that Marathon Oil took on Ashland’s liabilities without proper due diligence, therefore Marathon should move to settle with the local residents and clean up this mess.  Do the right thing, Marathon!