FOR more than five decades radioactive contamination in Louisiana oil fields has been a subject usually ignored by the general public and hotly debated by scientists. Now, with a state environmental law set to go into effect next month prohibiting oil and gas companies from discharging potentially radioactive water into coastal waterways, the matter has become a political football.
Environmentalists and petrochemical-company officials are arguing over just how dangerous radioactive contamination is.
"We've had this kind of contamination since oil production first started in Louisiana," says Kerry St. Pe, a regional coordinator with Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). "But as an issue, it has only gained public awareness in the past two years or so. Now, as more people know about the dangers of radioactive contamination, their concerns are increasing, and hopefully these new rules will address those concerns."
Elements are widespread
Although thorium, radium, and other naturally occurring radioactive materials can be found in the ground almost anywhere throughout the United States, in Louisiana such elements are brought to the surface and enter the environment through mining and drilling.
According to the DEQ, such elements in Louisiana have traditionally been disposed of through individual oil-field discharges that are then dumped into large bodies of water. "Wherever you have an oil field here, you're going to have this type of discharge," says Mr. St. Pe. "It's pumped to the surface with the water and oil, and when the pipes through which produced water flows develop scales, that's where the radium is concentrated."
A recent DEQ report disclosed that there are currently more than 700 discharge sites in Louisiana that emit about 2 million barrels of produced water daily.
The water can be dangerous; a study released last week by Louisiana State University (LSU) said discharges from two coastal oil operations led to vastly accelerated rates of mutation in minnows.
"Since the observation of chromosomal aberrations is usually rare in the cells of these organisms, and since cell replication and differentiation are maximal in the early developmental stages of these and other aquatic organisms, the result suggests that the potential exists for adverse effects of these discharges on estuarine productivity," the LSU report said.
Although the DEQ plan calls for a four-year phase-in of the discharge prohibition, many petrochemical-company officials here feel the danger is being overrated. They say the new rules will put an unnecessary financial burden on their industry.
"There is not any solid base of scientific evidence saying exactly what dangers these waters pose," says Mike Lyons, a spokesman for the Mid-Continental Oil and Gas Association, which represents dozens of small and large oil and gas companies in the state. "But we do know about the economic impact such rules could have. It's going to cost our business about $1 billion to change our operations."
Mr Lyons adds: "Our economic analysis also estimates that significant amounts of oil and gas reserves will be shut out because the wells no longer will be able to operate with such severe economics involved. In addition, the state will lose about $209 million in severance taxes from wells that are no longer operating."
C. Wayne Harmon, a lobbyist for the Louisiana Association of Independent Producers and Royalty Owners, also notes the financial consequences of the new rules, saying that more than 2,000 "unnecessary additional wells" will now have to be drilled to replace old wells, at a "capital cost to the industry of $337 million." Mr. Harmon says that annual operating costs for the Louisiana petrochemical industry could increase by more than $186 million.
Despite such costs, however, Louisiana DEQ officials say the price for ridding the state of dangerous oil field discharges is worth it. "Yes, it's going to be very expensive; it will cost money," says St. Pe. "But this is something that is highly dangerous and should be taken care of. We're talking about the short-term and long-term exposures to discharges that can cause death. You can't put a price tag on that."