Martha Reclamation Program: Dump and Run

Toxic Soup: Ashland's Radioactive Sludge Pits

Toxic Soup: Radiation at Blaine Elementary School

Friday, January 29, 2010

Who Knew?

Many of us had thought that dumping brine water from oil wells into creeks and unlined pits was just common industry practice.  Ashland seemed to do it all the time.  And in these parts it wasn’t just Ashland doing it.

However, this study of oil field waste disposal practices shows something different.  The summary of the study was pretty clear:
…oil field production problems have been with us for many decades…the oil and gas industry, through the American Petroleum Institute  – a trade association, appointed a committee, the Committee on Disposal of Production Wastes, to examine the problem.  The Committee issued a report through its Chairman, V. L. Martin, in 1932, at an API chapter meeting.  That API report further discredited the use of pits or “evaporation ponds” because they don’t result in disposal by evaporation, except in unusual cases, and they cause seepage into the ground and groundwater.  A later report (Elliston, 1942) by the API Central Committee on Drilling and Production Practice recommended tanks and injection wells for disposal of produced water.
Ashland’s geologists and engineers must not have received the memo.  You’d think that after all those years of going to API conventions they would have picked up a few industry best practices and brought them back to the Martha Oil Field.  However, it looks like they must have just spent all their convention time hanging out in cocktail bars and strip joints because we didn’t see any evidence in these reports that dumping produced water into creeks was a best practice for brine disposal.  It’s bad enough that they would salt up the waterways and the water table around here but when you add radioactive radium to the mix it’s an example of negligent, reckless business practices.

Ashland, clean up your mess!

(hat tip to Elizabeth Burns)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Martha Oil Field News Archive

Each of us remembers different things that have happened in the Martha Oil Field over the years.  It’s been so many years that sometimes it’s hard to keep things straight.  So we created an archive of news articles that have been written over the past several years.  These news articles usually have a short summary online.  Sometimes you have to pay a fee to see the whole article.  On the right side of the page are the first articles in chronological order.  We will add more as you point them out to us.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Louisiana's New Thingamabob

Here’s some interesting news from Louisiana (hat tip: Elizabeth Burns) about a relatively inexpensive way to measure the spread of brine water in soil in order to determine the extent of pollution from produced water pits.
ExxonMobil and Chevron are both settling cases with the state of Louisiana based on a technology called GEM. This is short for Geophex Electromagnetic Survey. It involves a conductivity probe that measures soil conductivity (more salt = higher conductivity) as you push it into the ground with a hydraulic rig. The probe is connected to a computer so that you can see how deep the salt contamination is in the field as soon as you are done pushing the rod as deep as you want to go. Using this toy, and the GEM, the plumes of open produced water pits are completely mapped before any samples are collected.
An attorney working for the state of Louisiana claims it costs about $1200 to map a pit in an open field.  They use a company called ICON Environmental.  The attorney reports that:
He said you can turn it over to the regulators and watch Chevron and ExxonMobil attempt to clean up produced water pits.
Of course this measurement method assumes produced water was dumped into pits.  In the Martha Oil Field a lot of produced water was just dumped into creeks.  Remember what General Kern called Yatesville Lake: Dead Sea II from all the brine.  Maybe the Commonwealth of Kentucky should be talking to the State of Louisiana
Ashland, clean up your mess!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Lyrics to the Ashland Oil Song

There have been requests for the lyrics to the song in our music video, the Ashland Oil song.  The banjo tune is "Ida Red," a traditional American folk song of unknown origin.

Ashland Oil

Ashland Oil, Ashland Oil,
We all live near Ashland oil,
Radiation's in the air,
Radiation's in the soil,
Ashland Oil, Ashland Oil,
We're all dying near Ashland oil.

The oil came from Kentucky shale,
The money flowed, it didn't fail,
What came up with the pumping water
Will kill your son or kill your daughter,
Ashland Oil, Ashland Oil,
We're all dying near Ashland oil.

We wrote to the lawyers, addressed the nation
To try and get some compensation,
Radium here, radium there,
Deadly atoms in the air,
Ashland Oil, Ashland Oil,
We're all dying near Ashland oil.

You can bet our case will fail,
Nobody will go to jail,
The legislature's bought and sold,
And we'll all die before we're old,
Ashland Oil, Ashland Oil,
We're all dying near Ashland oil.

Bishop Ralph will yell and shout,
The judge will throw our experts out,
Otto Raabe will testify
That natural background rates are high,
Ashland Oil, Ashland Oil,
We're all dying near Ashland oil.

If you come to this part of Kentucky
You better hope that you are lucky,
This is all stochastic harm
But you just wear that golden charm,
Ashland Oil, Ashland Oil,
Death remains here in the soil.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Yatesville Lake: Dead Sea II?...almost

Yatesville Lake was finished in 1991 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed Blaine Creek in Lawrence County, Kentucky.  The headwaters of Blaine Creek lie in the Martha Oil Field.  We have an interesting view into the politics of Yatesville Lake from the memoirs of Brig. Gen. Richard S. Kern who was commanding general of the Ohio River Division of the US Army Corps of Engineers at the time Yatesville was built.

Gen. Kern, from page 301…

When I arrived, I found myself faced with a lot of pressure from Congressman Perkins to get started on building 18-mile long Yatesville Lake.  At the same time, there were questions on the environment.  Huntington District came in one day and said, “We have a major problem.  We’ve tested the waters of the river, and it has an extremely high brine content because the Martha Oil Field is located just above it.”
Ashland Oil was operating this oil field, and they had a low-level extraction procedure going on.  Long ago the wells were basically finished, and now they were pumping brine into the wells to force out oil.  They were reaping very little, like a barrel a week, from some of them.
They were running that brine straight down the hillside into the streams, heading towards the creek that became the river that was going to become the lake behind Yatesville Dam.  Huntington District said, “We’re going to have Dead Sea II here if we build this lake.  It will be too briny; it will not support fishing or anything else.”
When that had been passed to Congressman Perkins, he said, “It’s all false.  Best bass fishing in the world is right there where those two tributaries come together and where we were going to build that dam.  I catch bass there all the time.  Best bass fishing in the world.”
When you reviewed the brine content of samples measured by Huntington District, you knew that we had two views of the world here [laughter].

So Congressman Perkins was determined to get his Yatesville Lake, come hell or high water, so to speak.  And Huntington District of the US Army Corps of Engineers was afraid Yatesville Lake would become Dead Sea II because Ashland Oil was dumping so much brine water into the creeks that would feed Yatesville.  Now back to Gen. Kern on page 302…
I asked for further analysis to be done on where the flows were coming from.  Meanwhile, I’d gone down to the Martha Oil Field and walked it, and I was appalled – absolutely appalled – to see what Ashland Oil was dumping down those hillsides.  I mean, you’d go up there and you’d see this eroded ditch coming out of a wellhead, running down the hill toward a stream, and it would be brown-orange colored from the stuff that had come out of there over time.  It was just running raw down the hillside – an absolute disregard for the environment.  I was really appalled.

Gen, Kern, the really appalling thing is what you couldn’t see, the radioactivity that was brought up from the shale formation by the brine water.  How are you going to build a lake with Ashland’s pollution feeding it?  Back to Gen. Kern, page 302…
Meanwhile, as mentioned, we had Huntington District doing further studies as to how the stuff got to the Big Sandy River and to the potential lake and what would happen.  What we discovered was that there were two components, surface runoff and ground water.  We also found a fault area through there, so we traced that.
What we found was that the way the fault lay, the subsurface water, the ground water, would be cut off before it got to the lake area and would go elsewhere.  Where the aquifers came in, they met up against an impervious wall area, and they were diverted elsewhere.  An important find – the briny ground water was cut off from going into the lake project area.

Well, congratulations Gen. Kern!  A geologic fault line diverts the briny ground water contamination away from your project site to “elsewhere.”  Guess what, we live in “elsewhere.”  Now that your ground water contamination problem is settled, how are you going to deal with the surface runoff?  Once again, Gen. Kern on pages 302-303…
So, with this, we developed a scheme that said we would design the lake, and we would isolate the lake from the Martha Oil Field by closing down discharges and the brine source.  Huntington District had come back with a proposal that we buy out the Martha Oil Field from Ashland for $50 million.  I thought that was not a worthwhile expenditure of federal funds.  We really ought to get Ashland to do what the nation had mandated, and that was to clean up the environment.  We needed to get the Commonwealth of Kentucky to act.  Being good responsible citizens, they would obviously want to do the same thing.
So, Huntington District approached the governor’s office and found that there was not great interest at the moment in cleaning it up.  Consequently, we went into a briefing one day for Congressman Perkins, I was going to lay out for him how we were going to proceed because he was badgering Chairman Bevill to get money for the project in that year’s budget to get started…
…In our meetings with EPA, we felt that we could go into the environmental impact process and demonstrate that if Kentucky cleaned up their law so Ashland Oil would stop contaminating, we could move it through EPA and Fish and Wildlife and show we were doing a good thing for the environment…
…That process was what we took to Congressman Perkins…Basically, he threw us out of the office at that point.  He told General John Wall, the Director of Civil Works, who was with us, that he wanted some of those combat generals, not all these environmental generals to talk to him [laughter]…
…Anyway, he basically threw us out of the office because he didn’t want to hear about going to the state to force Ashland Oil into compliance. 

So the Army Corps of Engineers went to the governor’s office to get Ashland to clean up their mess in the Martha Oil Field so the Army could safely build Yatesville Lake.  The governor’s office basically wasn’t interested in upsetting Ashland.  And Congressman Perkins definitely did not want to open that can of worms, so he threw them out of his office.  The only help the Army got was from Mother Nature, providing that geologic fault line to block the flow of contaminated ground water to Yatesville Lake.
The Army assumed that the surface runoff problem was fixed, since by the time the lake was finished most of the wells in the Martha Oil Field had been abandoned.  However their attention was on the brine in the runoff, hence the lake’s nickname Dead Sea II.  What about the continuing runoff from our radioactive sludge pits and other hot spots?  Check out the above video Toxic Soup: Ashland's Radioactive Sludge Pits.
Ashland, clean up your mess!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Martha Reclamation Program: Dirty Socks Under the Bed

After a piece of radioactive pipe from Ashland Oil’s Martha oil field tripped a Geiger counter at a scrap yard in 1988, Ashland knew they had a problem.  Let’s let Tom FitzGerald, Director of the Kentucky Resources Council, tell the story.  From his August 11, 2005 letter to the Kentucky Department for Public Health:

The discovery of elevated levels of radioactivity in the Martha oil field in the late 1980’s led to the development of a “Joint Agreement on Martha Reclamation Program (MRP)” executed between the Cabinet for Human Resources (CHR) and Ashland Exploration (AEI), in which AEI agreed to a program of reclamation under a document captioned “Martha Reclamation program” (August 1, 1993), modified by Technical Support Addendum (October/December 1994) and Technical Consensus Document (January 1995) in which levels of NORM would be lowered through selective removal of contaminated media, to agreed-upon values for radioactivity, with confirmatory sampling by the company and oversight by the Cabinet. The exemption criteria below which no remediation would be required was set at 5 pCi/gm above natural background and averaged over 100 square meters, in the top 15 cm of soil (with 15 pCi below 15 cm).

Whew!  Reading that was about as fun as clearing kudzu.  We think what he meant was Ashland and the state of Kentucky entered into an agreement to clean up the radiation to an agreed standard, with testing performed by Ashland (overseen by the state of Kentucky) to confirm that the agreed standard was met.  Now, back to Mr. FitzGerald…

After execution of the Joint Agreement in February 1995, procedures were agreed upon by CHR and AEI for selective confirmatory surveys of well sites and tank battery sites, for removal of contaminated soil and piping to a local collection and storage site, and for securing letters from CHR approving the remediated sites for “unrestricted release.” The “First Addendum to Joint Agreement on Martha Reclamation Program” executed in September 1995, contained procedures for release of sites, allowing any site with a reading below 20 micro r/hr at 1 meter above ground to be released, and providing for confirmatory surveys of a statistical sampling of the remediated sites. Over a period of several years as reclamation work was being undertaken by OHM under contract with AEI, data was submitted to the state concerning sites that had been “remediated” and letters of concurrence from CHR of the eligibility of many properties for unrestricted release were issued. The soils and piping removed by AEI were stored on AEI property, and to this day, significant quantities of the NORM-contaminated soil remain at a consolidation site and have not been properly disposed of in a permanent disposal site.

In other words, a process was put in place to survey selected sites where radioactive waste was likely to be, and the radioactive pipes, sludge, scale, soils, etc. that exceeded an agreed measurement threshold were removed to a temporary consolidation site on 
Ashland’s property.  The waste still sits there waiting for permanent disposal (see above video Toxic Soup: Ashland’s Radioactive Sludge Pits for an aerial view of the toxic waste consolidation site).  Once again, Mr. FitzGerald…

…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.

So, even though we’ve all been through the Martha Reclamation Program for the past 15 years we still have hazardous radioactive hot spots throughout the oil field.  So the clean-up has not been successful.  And we have a temporary radioactive waste dump site that is starting to look permanent.  We have radioactive waste drained out of old storage tanks, dumped into holes and buried. Some of these remediation efforts remind us of when we try to get our teenage kids to clean their rooms; at first things look OK but then we find that all the dirty socks and underwear end up under the bed.

Ashland, clean up this mess!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Radiation at Blaine Elementary School

Over 15 years ago radiation was discovered in the drinking water and playground equipment at Blaine Elementary School, about 5 miles from Martha.  The playground equipment was made from pipes provided by Ashland Oil to the school.  Of course the pipes were loaded with radioactive scale and were removed from the school grounds once it was discovered that they were radioactive.

The drinking water at the school was tested and subsequently shut down.  The water table was evidently found to be contaminated so bottled water was brought in for the students.  Eventually a dedicated water supply was provided for the school and all this slipped down the memory hole.  Try googling the internet.  There’s nothing out there…except this:

From the Public Papers of Governor Brereton C. Jones, 1991-1995, page 359-360

House Committee on Appropriations Testimony
Washington, D.C.
February 28, 1995

“I went to Blaine Elementary School in Lawrence County, Kentucky, where $430,000 had been approved to help build thirty-one miles of water lines for the area.  The principal, who met me at the door, was nearly in tears because she was so excited.  The 320 students who went to that school had to drink bottled water because of the presence of radioactive sludge from nearby oil-field pits.  Some of them had never, ever, had running water in their homes.  And that $430,000 was only a part of the funding.  The community also had gotten a Community Development Block Grant of $750,000, a Farmers Home Administration grant of $500,000, a Farmers Home Loan of $400,000, plus more than $118,000 in local money and almost $35,000 in in-kind labor.  So that $450,000 has been parlayed into a construction project exceeding $2.3 million.”

What Governor Jones was telling the House Committee on Appropriations was that an original $430,000 contribution from the Appalachian Regional Commission was leveraged with additional federal and local taxpayer money into a $2.3 million water system for Blaine, Kentucky, all because Ashland Oil contaminated the water table with radioactive waste.  We may be mistaken, but, unless it is included in the local money or the in-kind labor we don’t see any Ashland contribution to this water system.  Blaine Elementary School had to shut down its well, buy bottled water, and the taxpayers had to buy a new water system for the school.  Ashland used to be considered by folks to be a good corporate citizen around here.  It seems that in the end they just did a dump and run.

Look at the video Toxic Soup: Radiation at School for more information about Ashland’s radioactive contamination at the school.

Ashland, clean up your mess!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Kentucky Courts as Scientific Gatekeepers

We can all breathe a lot easier knowing the great scientific minds of the Kentucky judicial system are on guard keeping the world safe from pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo.  At least that’s what the Kentucky Appellate Court and Ashland’s attorneys would like us to believe.  We are skeptical.

The court in Kentucky likes to think of itself as a scientific “gatekeeper charged with keeping out unreliable pseudoscientific evidence” presented by expert witnesses.  They call it “narrowing the issues” using “orderly pre-trial proceedings.”  The court believes its role as gatekeeper is “especially sensitive in cases where the plaintiff claims that exposure to a toxic substance caused his injury, because a jury may blindly accept an expert’s opinion that conforms with their underlying fears of toxic substances without carefully understanding or examining the basis for that opinion.”

An example of this “gatekeeper” role occurred in the Cantrell v. Ashland trial.  The plaintiff’s expert witness testimony was excluded by the court because the witness used a linear model where large doses of radiation present a large risk relative to small doses, consistent with the dose modeling used by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Ashland’s expert asserted that a threshold model applied, where radiation doses under a threshold value have no effect on human health.  The court excluded the plaintiff evidence completely, disregarding the EPA model.  This is wrong.  Since radiation dose risk assessment is NOT settled science how is one model valid and the other not per se?  The plaintiff model used by the EPA is valid for regulatory purposes and should have been admitted as reasonable evidence at trial.  It would be subject to cross-examination by Ashland’s attorneys and let the jury decide based on the merits of both models.  This is a jury of our peers, not children.  We believe the court inserted itself into the trial and affected the outcome by excluding this evidence since, without it, the plaintiffs had difficulty demonstrating the negative impact of Ashland’s radioactive waste on their properties.

The plaintiffs have an uphill fight on their hands.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ashland: How do you clean up a sludge pit? Dump it in the creek!

In the Cantrell v. Ashland case the plaintiffs tried to get a videotape admitted as evidence that showed Ashland’s contractors on November 12, 1996 intentionally pumping contaminated water and oil from a sludge pit into Blaine Creek, a public waterway that discharges into nearby Yatesville LakeAshland was literally caught on tape.  We don’t have a copy of the actual tape, but we do have an “artist’s interpretation” depicting the events of November 12, 1996 for your entertainment.

The lower court disallowed the videotape and the accompanying testimony of the cameraman as evidence for the following reasons:

  1. The court viewed the conduct on the videotape as a remedial measure for the contamination.  So let me get this straight… removing the radioactive waste from a sludge pit and dumping it into a public waterway is a standard remedial measure?  On what planet?  The videotape shows a clear example of the problem, not the remedy.
  2. Ashland’s pollution of Blaine Creek was activity on other property, not the plaintiff’s property.  Here we go again.
  3. The court viewed the tape as unfairly prejudicial toward Ashland.  Never mind that it merely shows what happened: Ashland pumping radioactive waste into the creek.
  4. Finally, seizing on the plaintiff’s statement that the tape depicted a criminal act, the court stated, “Well then, you’re in the wrong Court right now, then.  You ought to be in criminal court.”  Since when is criminal evidence not admissible in a civil case?  Ask O.J. Simpson.

Needless to say, if the court won’t admit this type of evidence, the plaintiffs are fighting an uphill battle against Ashland and the courts.  What kind of message does this send to landowners in oil and gas country?

Ashland, clean up your mess!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Ashland: Your Water Table Ends at Your Property Line

The Cantrell v. Ashland case has gone on appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court.  Written briefs have been submitted to the Court by both sides and oral arguments are pending.  We scratch our head when we read this stuff, since the lower court’s actions are riddled with errors, handing the verdict to Ashland.

One of the big errors committed by the lower court was restricting the testimony of Bob Grace, a petroleum engineer with oil field experience and particular expertise in water flooding and other secondary recovery techniques.  Grace reviewed the records for several wells, including those on the plaintiff’s property.  He opined that Ashland’s methods were reckless, dangerous and grossly negligent and contaminated the land, surface waters and aquifers of the Martha Oil Field.  He added that the improper use of nitroglycerin and high pressure water injection fractured the underground rock formations, permitting radioactive material to migrate between formations and contaminate the oil field.

Ashland objected to this testimony because they had not committed all these activities specifically on the plaintiff’s property.  Grace was not allowed to talk about the use of nitroglycerin or hydrofracking since these techniques were not used of the plaintiff’s property per se, even though they were used throughout the Martha Oil Field as part of Ashland’s secondary recovery program.  Hydrofracking on a neighbor’s property is inadmissible evidence if the neighbor is not part of the lawsuit.  This is ridiculous since the effects of nitroglycerin explosions and hydrofracking are not likely to be limited by property lines.  You guys in the Marcellus Shale zone should take note of this legal technique, since it may be used against you in the future.

The plantiffs really got the shaft from the lower court when Grace’s testimony was excluded since they could not demonstrate that Ashland’s behavior throughout the Martha Oil Field, which Ashland managed for decades, was a gross deviation from industry standards.  Ashland’s D.C. law firm bragged on their web site that “One of the foundations of the favorable verdict, and its affirmation on appeal was the success of key pretrial efforts led by members our team to limit the testimony of plaintiffs’ experts.”

It seems to us that once again the lawyers get to pad their resumes and we get to glow in the dark.