Fire at Oil and Gas Waste Site Raises Safety Concerns Around Possible Radioactive Accidents

Fire at Oil and Gas Waste Site Raises Safety Concerns Around Possible Radioactive Accidents
on

On the evening of February 1, a fire erupted at a West Virginia facility that processes radioactive oilfield waste generated from nearby fracking operations, injuring two workers. A video of the fire captured by local news station WTRF shows a raging nighttime inferno billowing out of the collapsed building.

Initial news reports described the facility — located in Dallas Pike, 50 miles southwest of Pittsburgh — as a truck stop cleaning station. However, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) confirmed to DeSmog that the facility, which the agency says is owned and operated by Ohio-based company Petta Enterprises, does a lot more than clean trucks: It processes oil and gas waste. And the agency confirmed that it was the volatile nature of this waste — transported inside trucks arriving at the site — that helped cause the blaze.

The blast raises concerns about the risk to health and the environment from waste processing facilities like this which continue to pop up around the Marcellus and Utica shale region, not just in West Virginia, but also Ohio and Pennsylvania. Community members, advocacy groups, and some industry workers fear that the government, whether local, state, or federal, is not properly regulating or monitoring the toxic and radioactive waste produced from fracking and being processed at sites like the Dallas Pike facility.

Lou Vargo, Director of West Virginia’s Wheeling-Ohio County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, told DeSmog the blaze occurred when a type of worksite space heating unit called a torpedo heater ignited vapors leftover in an oil and gas waste truck that was being cleaned at the facility. The heater apparently was being used to warm the workspace on a cold, snowy night.    

We got there at 8:00 p.m. that night and everything was pretty well burnt up,” said Vargo. “We believe that when the workers opened the truck hatch to start cleaning inside the truck, there must have been enough vapors left in there that came out, and it was in close enough range that they came in contact with the flame from the torpedo heater.”


Video of the February 1 fire at Petta’s Dallas Pike, West Virginia, oil and gas waste processing site, from local news station WTRF.

Two workers suffered burns. One of them, according to a brief summary of the incident provided to DeSmog by the WVDEP, was “badly injured.” Vargo said this worker was transported to a burn center in Pittsburgh, but had no further details.

The Department of Environmental Protection summary indicates that the torpedo heater caused the explosion by igniting condensate gas and petroleum that was “mingled” with the fracking flowback matter and brine in the truck. Flowback and brine are both fluid byproducts from oil and gas extraction with toxic and radioactive constituents.

What Happens to Radioactive Oil and Gas Waste?

Geologic formations that contain oil and gas deposits also contain naturally-occurring radionuclides,” explains a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) webpage on the various radioactive waste products generated during oil and gas production. While waste at any specific well may not always be radioactive, much of the waste produced by the oil and gas industry has the potential to be radioactive. Generally, once the waste has been brought to the surface after oil and gas extraction, it is called TENORM — or Technologically Enhanced Radioactive Materials. These waste streams include flowback, brine (also called produced water), various sludges, and a hardened mineral deposit called scale that can form on the inside of oilfield piping.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s September 2017 Letter of Authorization to Petta indicates both brine and flowback are being processed at the facility.

 

When asked if officials had concerns about any radioactivity being released as a result of the February 1 fire, Vargo said: “Not necessarily, because there was no release to the atmosphere, because it was an explosion.” He added, “we did check the area and there was no sign of radioactivity or any other contaminants.”

West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) spokesperson Allison Adler said, “Communication was received from the WVDEP that Bob Applegate of the Petta facility did a walk around of the facility with a radiation survey meter and noted that the area around the building did not receive any readings higher then background levels of radiation.” She said DHHR staff have not been onsite at the facility since the incident.

DHHR is currently working with the watch center to streamline the process to notify DHHR of events at TENORM facilities directly,” said Adler. “DHHR does not have information relating to the equipment that was burned or details of how the fire spread so quickly.”

WVDEP did not respond directly to questions about exactly what material or equipment was burned in the fire, and the brief incident summary passed along by the agency does not include these details.      

But an industry worker who says he has hauled to Petta in Dallas Pike on dozens of occasions since the facility began operating in 2017, described to DeSmog some of the work done at the facility. For fear of losing his job, he is unable to give his real name and goes by the pseudonym Peter. Peter has hauled oil and gas waste in the Marcellus and Utica for more than five years.

While WVDEP’s notice of authorization merely refers to the site as a “truck wash facility” and says the wastewater will be generated “from washing trucks,” Peter argues this is an inaccurate description of the facility. While some trucks go to Petta just for a clean out, he said many trucks unload their full contents into pits or containers called “half rounds” located inside the facility. Peter says he has hauled sludges and “tank bottom” material from oil and gas well sites to Petta.

It is not just a clean out, there are tanks and sludge pits in that building filled with whatever was in them on that day,” said Peter. Given that video from the local news station shows the entire building in flames, he believes these pits would have ignited too.

Petta takes the dirty, nasty shit, a mixture of whatever the hell was on that [fracking] pad on that day that cannot go to an injection well [where oilfield brine is typically disposed] because it is too thick or too dirty, [so it] goes to Petta to be processed,” said Peter. “We are not told what it is specifically the material we are hauling, we have no clue.”    

Petta's oil and gas waste processing facility in Cambridge, Ohio
Petta’s oil and gas waste processing facility in Cambridge, Ohio, which operates in a similar fashion to its facility in Dallas Pike, West Virginia, which was the site of a recent fire. Credit: Kerri Bond

Petta also operates an oil and gas waste treatment facility in Cambridge, Ohio. At this facility, similar to what Peter describes at the Dallas Pike facility, trucks carry liquid fracking waste, and unload their contents into “half round” containers and pits that enable solids to settle out. Inspection reports from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources convey that these solids are mixed with other material, such as lime and corn cob base, an attempt to solidify the waste. The trucks are cleaned out and the liquid wastewater is hauled to injection wells in Ohio for disposal.

Peter adds that for several years now he has had concerns about workers at oil and gas waste treatment facilities like Petta. Those concerns extend to his own health, he says, but he has been unable to find a local doctor willing to examine him for chemical and radioactive exposures. He says the inside of the Dallas Pike Petta facility had a “putrid smell, a chemical noxious smell that you will never forget.”

This is not the first time this has happened at a facility like this, the regulators are not getting it,” said Peter, of the February 1 fire.

News reports indicate that on April 25, 2018, two workers and a nearby sheriff’s deputy were taken to the hospital after a “hazardous materials incident” at Petta’s Dallas Pike facility. An inspection report of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources from January 2020 indicates that at Petta’s Cambridge, Ohio facility, “A fire involving waste and hot lime had occurred at the facility on 12/21/2019.”

My message to the regulators in West Virginia, in Ohio, in Pennsylvania, as a matter of fact to the federal ones too, get your fucking asses out here and see what the fuck is going on,” said Peter.

A Largely Unregulated Industry in Ohio and West Virginia    

Oil and gas waste treatment facilities receive scant regulation by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

A Marcellus Shale gas drilling operation run by Rex Energy in Jackson Township, Pennsylvania, in 2012.
A Marcellus Shale gas drilling operation run by Rex Energy in Jackson Township, Pennsylvania, in 2012. Credit: WCN 24/7CC BYNC 2.0

In Ohio, to store, recycle, treat, process, or dispose of brine and other oilfield waste, companies simply submit an application that is reviewed by the chief of the ODNR. These are called “Chief’s Order” facilities, and ODNR spokesperson Sarah Wickham says there are currently 23 of these facilities operating in Ohio. No public meetings precede the construction of these facilities, many locals remain unaware they exist, and the Ohio Department of Health does not regularly monitor them, says Teresa Mills, Executive Director of Buckeye Environmental Network.

In West Virginia, the Department of Environmental Protection has no permit specific to oil and gas waste treatment facilities and is unaware of how many are located in the state. “Depending on how this type of facility conducts its operations, it may not need a permit or it could require a multi-sector industrial stormwater general permit, a solid waste permit, or perhaps an individual WV/NPDES discharge permit,” said WVDEP spokesperson Terry Fletcher, referring to a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. The permit is a cornerstone of the nation’s 1972 Clean Water Act and sets limits on a broad set of pollutants to operators discharging waste streams to waters of the United States.

The WVDEP does not have a definitive list of these facilities because each facility, depending on the specifics of their operation, may have differing permit requirements, or none at all,” said Fletcher.

If these facilities are dealing with TENORM, they must register with the DHHR [Department of Health and Human Resources],” he added.

According to a September 14, 2017 WVDEP letter that serves as a notice of authorization to Petta, the company emailed WVDEP on August 14, 2017 seeking a determination of the regulatory requirements “of a reuse/recycle wastewater and solids from Truck wash facility.    

WVDEP‘s reply to Petta conveys confusion around the term TENORM. While EPA explicitly states that brine qualifies as TENORM, WVDEP implies that it is not by acknowledging Petta will be accepting brine, but then stating that if they start receiving TENORM, they will need to take further actions. Three years later, DHHR visited Petta’s Dallas Pike facility on January 16, 2020, to notify them that they needed to register with DHHR as a TENORM processing facility.

 

Since this date, the facility has been working with DHHR to become registered,” said DHHR spokesperson Adler. “The registration has been delayed due to revisions needed to their radiation safety plans as well as difficulty in obtaining the $1 million financial surety required to become a registered facility.”

In a February 13, 2020 letter from Tera E. Patton, the Radiologic Health Chief with DHHR, to Brian Petta, the agency states that no violations were noted during the January 16 visit but there were several issues that needed to be addressed, including “drink containers and cigarettes (both butts and packing” left in the work areas.

General uncleanliness of the facility/site indicate sloppy work practices that could lead to spread of radiological contamination and increased potential of exposure of staff,” the letter said. “Environmental protection measures, such as liners, were found to be missing in areas and in poor repair in others.”

The facility was inspected again by DHHR on October 9, 2020. The inspector noted that “the bottoms of several tanks were covered in very heavy rust and should be inspected to ensure that there is not an issue of leakage” and “Drink containers continue to be an issue and were noted at various locations around the facility. Petta staff, available during the inspection were once again reminded that the practice of food and drink around TENORM material must be stopped.”

 

Oil and gas waste treatment facilities have long concerned residents and environmental advocacy groups across the Marcellus and Utica shale region.

With over 10 years of watching the facilities, asking for public records, and even trying to locate the exact address of their operations, I have been unable to understand how any of these industries operate,” said Leatra Harper, with FreshWater Accountability Project, an Ohio-based watchdog focused on unconventional oil and gas development.

No one knows what is in the waste that is being handled, so workers are not protected from exposures to radiation and the unknown chemicals which may be extremely hazardous,” said Harper. “All this stems from falsely labeling frack waste as non-hazardous and must be stopped, but there are no measures taken to doing so.”

Under a 1980 amendment to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which empowers the EPA to regulate hazardous waste from cradle to grave, toxic waste streams from oil and gas production are exempt from being labelled as hazardous, a decision the EPA affirmed in 1988 because doing so would “cause a severe economic impact” on the industry.

Page 1 of 2018 Aug 15, ODNR Petta Inspection

Contributed to DocumentCloud by Ashley Braun (DeSmogBlog) • View document or read text

Reports from inspections at Petta’s Cambridge, Ohio, facility conducted by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and obtained from Teresa Mills with Buckeye Environmental Network, also indicate problems. A February 2017 inspection found “solidified waste” spilled on the floor. An August 2018 inspection notes that while personnel were wearing hard hats, protective clothing was limited, and “Waste material was accumulated on the employee’s clothing, skin, and hard hats.”

Harper, with FreshWater Accountability Project, says she has tried to get the Ohio Department of Health to investigate the state’s oil and gas waste treatment facilities. And now, the fire at the Petta facility in Dallas Pike only adds more urgency to this mission. “I am desperate to get OSHA to do something too,” she said, referring to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Labor.

This incident was not reported to OSHA,” said OSHA spokesperson Lenore Uddyback-Fortson, referring to the February 1 fire at the Petta facility in Dallas Pike. “We have now initiated an inspection but do not have details to share at this time. They have a total of six months to complete their investigation and release their findings.”

The West Virginia Oil & Natural Gas Association has not replied to questions about worker safety and radioactivity. Petta has not replied to questions.

Main image: Petta Enterprises also owns a facility that processes oil and gas industry waste in Cambridge, Ohio, similar to its facility in Dallas Pike, West Virginia, which was the site of a recent fire. Credit: Kerri Bond

Fire at Oil and Gas Waste Site Raises Safety Concerns Around Possible Radioactive Accidents
Justin Nobel writes on issues of science and the environment for Rolling Stone and has a book on oil and gas radioactivity forthcoming with Simon & Schuster entitled PETROLEUM-238: Big Oil’s Dangerous Secret and the Grassroots Fight to Stop It.

Related Posts

Analysis
on

Companies face shareholder votes over climate policy lobbying, emissions disclosures, and aligning their plans with the Paris Agreement.

Companies face shareholder votes over climate policy lobbying, emissions disclosures, and aligning their plans with the Paris Agreement.
on

Where it’s no longer credible to deny climate change, the fossil fuel giant puts the focus on ‘risk’ and blame on consumers, in echo of tobacco industry PR, researchers find.

Where it’s no longer credible to deny climate change, the fossil fuel giant puts the focus on ‘risk’ and blame on consumers, in echo of tobacco industry PR, researchers find.
on

A new report details the corporate influence behind a wave of local anti-democratic bills that are proliferating in state legislatures

A new report details the corporate influence behind a wave of local anti-democratic bills that are proliferating in state legislatures
on

Activists are taking the UK government to court over its 'Maximising Economic Recovery' policy in the North Sea.

Activists are taking the UK government to court over its 'Maximising Economic Recovery' policy in the North Sea.