America’s Radioactive Secret


One day in 2017, Peter pulled up to an injection well in Cambridge, Ohio. A worker walked around his truck with a hand-held radiation detector, he says, and told him he was carrying one of the “hottest loads” he’d ever seen. It was the first time Peter had heard any mention of the brine being radioactive.

The Earth’s crust is in fact peppered with radioactive elements that concentrate deep underground in oil-and-gas-bearing layers. This radioactivity is often pulled to the surface when oil and gas is extracted — carried largely in the brine.

In the popular imagination, radioactivity conjures images of nuclear meltdowns, but radiation is emitted from many common natural substances, usually presenting a fairly minor risk. Many industry representatives like to say the radioactivity in brine is so insignificant as to be on par with what would be found in a banana or a granite countertop, so when Peter demanded his supervisor tell him what he was being exposed to, his concerns were brushed off; the liquid in his truck was no more radioactive than “any room of your home,” he was told. But Peter wasn’t so sure.

So Peter started quietly taking samples of the brine he hauled, filling up old antifreeze containers or soda bottles. Eventually, he packed a shed in his backyard with more than 40 samples. He worried about further contamination but says, for him, “the damage is already done.” He wanted answers. “I cover my ass,” he says. “Ten or 15 years down the road, if I get sick, I want to be able to prove this.”

Through a grassroots network of Ohio activists, Peter was able to transfer 11 samples of brine to the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University, which had them tested in a lab at the University of Pittsburgh. The results were striking.

Radium, typically the most abundant radionuclide in brine, is often measured in picocuries per liter of substance and is so dangerous it’s subject to tight restrictions even at hazardous-waste sites. The most common isotopes are radium-226 and radium-228, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires industrial discharges to remain below 60 for each. Four of Peter’s samples registered combined radium levels above 3,500, and one was more than 8,500.

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