ANOTHER POSSIBLE environmental nightmare is emerging in the form of radioactive contamination in the oil industry. The threats to the environment and human health demand a thorough investigation by the industry and federal authorities.
This source of pollution has only recently come to light. A Louisiana official in charge of environmental affairs had never heard of the problem until two years ago. Now he says the oil industry is using the environment as a free disposal system.
The radioactivity comes from the radium that occurs naturally in all oil-producing regions in the country. The radium comes to the surface in the water that is pumped out with the oil and causes radioactivity in oil pipes, pumps and other equipment. The problem is most acute in the South, where the water has often been pumped into ponds, called "oil pits."
The frightening aspect of these new disclosures is that this contamination has posed a possible threat to oil workers and nearby residents for years, and yet there have been no regulations and no surveillance of possible ill effects.
The oil industry claims the risks are minimal or virtually nonexistent, but how can it be sure? Hardly any studies on the threat have been carried out, but enough has been done to reveal these alarming situations:
Tests in Southern states show that the oil-water mixture pumped to the surface had radiation levels five to 30 times higher than the federal government allows to be released from nuclear power plants.
Three Louisiana oil pits had concentrations of radium comparable to the radioactive pollution in old nuclear weapons plants and uranium mills. These are now being cleaned up under an extensive federal program that will cost $90 billion or more.
Many abandoned oil pits are open to access by animals or people. Radium dust or radon gas pose threats, especially if the pits are filled in and used for homes or businesses. No one knows how many oil pits there are, but there 70,000 active and 120,000 inactive oil wells in Louisiana alone.
Some 30 schools in Louisiana have made use of contaminated oil field pipes to make playground equipment, railings and awning supports. Students use the pipes for welding classes.
Nothing conclusive is known, because these discoveries are all so new, but enough is known to be alarmed at the lack of environmental checks and standards. Nuclear plant workers are protected by careful monitoring of the amount of radiation they absorb, but there are no such safeguards in the oil industry.
Radium is one of the most toxic radioactive substances and causes cancer of the lungs and bones.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating to establish the basic outlines of the problem, and the oil industry, too, must to find out the extent of the pollution threat and take steps to bring it under control.