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Crude Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas Waste

(See endnote 29)

This includes all wastes that come from the exploration, development, and production of crude oil, natural gas, and geothermal energy. Oil and gas come from formations that contain naturally occurring radioactive materials such as uranium and its decay products, thorium and its decay products, radium and its decay products, and lead-210. This radioactive material may contaminate pipes, equipment or their components, waters that have been produced along with the energy source, and sludge. The produced water may not only be contaminated but also have a high brine content. The petroleum industry produces about 260,000 metric tons of waste yearly.

Coal ash is made up of: fine fly ash which is mostly silica; bottom ash which is coarse and can be too large to be carried out of the smokestacks; boiler slag which is made up of the molten bottom ash; and flue gas desulfurization material which is left over from reducing the sulfur dioxide emissions. Coal ash also contains, but is not limited to contaminants such as mercury, cadmium, and arsenic.

Coal ash is one of the largest sources of waste created in the United States, especially from coal- fired electric utilities. In 2012, 110 million tons of coal ash were created. Coal ash may be put in on-site or off-site landfills or surface impoundments with dams.

Best Practices in Disposal of Crude Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas Waste

  • • Test all scrap metals for radioactive materials and then remove those items to a safe place for disposal, before releasing the metal into the waste metal stream for recycling.
  • • Clean all piping and equipment and test for radioactive material before releasing into the recycling waste metal stream for smelting.
  • • Install pollution control devices such as filters and bubblers on smelter stacks to reduce airborne radiation.
  • • Sludge with elevated radiation levels should be dewatered and held in storage tanks for proper disposal.
  • • Re-inject waters that have come along with the oil and natural gas production back into the underground areas of exploration using state-of-the-art protected deep wells which shall not allow any of the material to go into the groundwater supply.
  • • Clean out all contaminated pipes at special areas by sandblasting them with high pressure water or scraping and remove the contaminated scale to drums for later disposal.
  • • If contaminated equipment cannot be decontaminated efficiently by cleaning and then reused by the petroleum industry, it must be sent to special licensed landfills that are able to handle this type of material.
  • • All impoundments and landfills used to contain coal ash should have liners which are impermeable and will not permit contamination of the groundwater supply. (The Final Rule from the US EPA only requires that those impoundments that contaminate groundwater or fail to meet location requirements install liners or close. The problem with the rule is that no one knows what will happen in the future because of leaking of contaminants, and therefore the groundwater supply is being put at risk unnecessarily.)
  • • Install groundwater monitoring devices around surface impoundments and landfills to determine if leaking contaminants are entering the groundwater supply.
  • • Install liners for all new surface impoundments and landfills and only place these disposal sites in areas which meet engineering and structural standards. Do not build them in sensitive areas including wetlands and areas where earthquakes may occur, to prevent contamination of groundwater.
  • • Utilize the coal ash Final Rule structural integrity criteria to determine if existing disposal sites are safe and then conduct periodic inspections to determine further structural stability.
  • • Develop a fugitive dust plan for landfills or surface impoundments and operate a water spray or fogging system to contain the dust. Also use wind barriers, compaction of the material, and vegetative cover as means of reducing potential dust.
  • • Coal ash can and should be recycled as an ingredient in the manufacture of concrete and wallboard.
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