THE Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 1 million tons of hazardous waste are produced in American oil fields each year. Common oil-field wastes like drilling muds and completion fluids often contain heavy metals like barium and chromium and chemicals like benzene. Despite these dangerous constituents, "associated" oil-field wastes like drilling muds, are exempt from federal hazardous-waste laws. "There is no reason to exempt the oil industry from the same laws that other industries have to abide by," says Chris Shuey of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, N.M. Mr. Shuey explains that associated wastes were exempted from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1988.
Several groups are fighting to bring toxic oil-field wastes under RCRA when the federal law is reconsidered by Congress later this year. Shuey, along with the National Audubon Society and the Alaska Center for the Environment, have created the National Citizens Network on Oil and Gas Wastes to lobby Congress.
Another key issue for the group is radioactivity in the oil field. Tests done by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality show the salt water produced in Louisiana's oil fields is five to 30 times more radioactive than the water released from nuclear power plants.