Inside Report for Dec. 19, 2012

Details not clear on NORM issue

Environmental regulation is often a question of degree seeking this answer: when is something too much and, as a result, bad for people and the environment?

So it is for protections against radioactivity.

All manner of things are radioactive at some level, however miniscule, including the human body, bananas, Brazil nuts, beer and raw lima beans.

The regulation of naturally occurring radioactive material, called NORM, fits into this hot-and-cold porridge framework.

Radioactive isotopes are distributed diffusely by nature in the earth’s crust, but industrial activities involving the subsurface, such as oil and gas drilling or brine production, can concentrate those isotopes in pipe scale and sludge. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Argonne National Laboratory say NORM can have radioactivity at widely different levels, from safe background levels to ten thousand times greater.

Radium-226, which results from the radioactive decay of uranium-238, is the principal element of concern with NORM, the EPA says. Radium-226 itself takes 1,600 years to undergo radioactive decay into another element, a process that releases radiation.

DEQ is investigating Texas Brine’s handling of NORM from the company’s Grand Bayou site. In August and September 1995, the company asked DEQ and the state Office of Conservation for permission to put NORM in the Oxy Geismar No. 3 cavern in Napoleonville Dome. DEQ never granted permission then and has never authorized NORM disposal in the Napoleonville Dome, the agency says.

This is the same brine cavern believed to have failed over the summer, causing an 8-acre sinkhole between the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou communities that prompted an evacuation now more than three months old and triggering the release of oil and methane.

DEQ officials are emphatic that, in 1995, NORM of any level radioactivity was banned from salt domes by state law.

While that ban remains in place, the Legislature in 1999 removed NORM and other exploration and production waste from the legal definition of radioactive waste, making NORM disposal in salt domes legal today.

Richard Metcalf, director of environmental affairs for the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, said the ban’s application to NORM in 1995 may not be as clear as DEQ asserts.

Metcalf said DEQ regulations on NORM do not apply until a certain threshold radioactivity is met.

What’s not clear to Metcalf is whether the state salt dome ban overcame those regulations in 1995 before the 1999 changes.

“If it’s exempt from DEQ, but still radioactive, what does the (salt dome ban) statute mean? I don’t know. Like I say, only a judge knows for sure,” Metcalf said.

Rodney Mallett, DEQ spokesman, said the ban included NORM, at whatever the level of radioactivity, in 1995.

Mallett pointed to the definition of “radioactive material” at the time, as “any material, whether solid, liquid or gas, which emits radiation spontaneously.” There’s little hedging in that language.

Texas Brine has given contradictory statements about whether NORM was put down the Oxy Geismar No. 3 cavern.

When informed last month that DEQ considered NORM disposal in salt caverns illegal in 1995, company officials reversed an earlier statement that NORM was put in the cavern.

Company officials said the material — in this case, a small amount of scale — remains on Texas Brine’s Grand Bayou site under a DEQ NORM general license, first issued in 1991 after the company initially found NORM on site.

David Mitchell is covering the Bayou Corne sinkhole issue for The Advocate. He can be reached at dmitchell@theadvocate.com. Follow him at #newsydave.