Mason Adams Published

How W.Va. Oil And Gas Industry Leaves Behind Radioactivity

Two adults, with their backs to the camera, wear protective suits and coverings while leaning in to collect samples in water.
Yuri Gorby and Jill Hunkler sample water from a pond of fracking wastewater abandoned on one side of the facility. Samples sent to Eberline Analytical, a radiological analysis lab in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, showed elevated levels of radium, thorium, bismuth and radioactive lead.
Photo courtesy of Justin Nobel

This conversation originally aired in the Feb. 25, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

In some places, the oil and gas industry is leaving behind industrial sites that are radioactive and dangerous — like Fairmont Brine in Fairmont, West Virginia.

This abandoned site became a popular hangout spot for unsuspecting local residents. Justin Nobel has covered issues of radioactivity in the oil and gas industry for an upcoming book, Petroleum-238: Big Oil’s Dangerous Secret and the Grassroots Fight to Stop It.

Nobel wrote about Fairmont Brine for Truthdig. The story is titled “Inside West Virginia’s Chernobyl: A highly radioactive oil and gas facility has become a party spot in Marion County.” 

Inside Appalachia Host Mason Adams spoke with Nobel to learn more.

A close up of an adult man who isn't smiling, poses for a photo. His hair is dark, short, and curly.
Investigative reporter Justin Nobel.

Photo courtesy of Justin Nobel

Adams: Your story describes an abandoned industrial site where locals are hanging out. That rings true to me from my teenage years a little bit. But in this case, there’s something else going on here. What did you find out?

Nobel: Over the course of my reporting into oilfield radioactivity, I’ve learned that a lot more comes to the surface with oil and gas development than just the oil and gas. The industry brings a lot of really toxic materials up from deep in the earth. Often you have heavy metals, you have carcinogens, like benzene volatile organics, and you have radioactive metals as well.

One of the most concerning ones is the radioactive metal radium, which is a known human carcinogen. You have this really big waste stream in the oilfield brine that comes up. The industry also calls that “produced water.” This is a major waste stream across the U.S. — three billion gallons of oilfield brine a day comes to the surface with oil and gas development, and the industry has to do something with that. So the industry has had an interest in trying to “treat” that brine — trying to take out the toxicity. Take out the heavy metals, take out the radioactivity, and you’ve got a lot of salt. So you can transform that into a usable product, maybe like road salts. Then with the watery component, you can use that to frack new wells. And that sounds really great to the industry. They love to promote that they can take the waste stream and repurpose it for something beneficial.

The problem with brine is it has such a complex brew of toxic elements that it’s actually really, really hard to treat. It’s really hard to remove all the different contaminants from brine and get this clean product that you can then send back out into the world. Even if you do that successfully, you collected all the toxicity, right? And if part of that toxicity is radioactivity, you’ve created a facility where you are concentrating and collecting radioactivity.

At this particular site in West Virginia, this is exactly what they were trying to do: They were trying to treat the oilfield brine. And if your plan isn’t working perfectly, you’re gonna get gunked up really quickly. And you’re building up heavy metals, you’re building up radioactivity, and you’re building up potentially all sorts of problems. And across the board, these plants fail.

A building in the distance is shown, covered in graffiti. Closer to the camera is broken furniture that has been vandalized.
The Fairmont Brine Processing site was covered with graffiti and littered with detritus such as beer cans and condoms, indicating the place has become a recurring party spot for locals. Yuri Gorby expressed particular concern about the highly elevated levels of the extremely dangerous radioactive element polonium. Anyone partying at the site is “going to be getting dosed,” says Gorby. “There are going to be long-term chronic effects from this.”

Photo courtesy of Justin Nobel

Adams: At Fairmont Brine, your Geiger counter reads about 7,000 counts per minute, which maxes out the unit. You later drive home the point that working at those levels of radioactivity for one week will take a worker over a yearly limit set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But yet, teenagers could wander in here without being stopped. What’s the status of this facility?

Nobel: I think anywhere in America, if you have this kind of busted up industrial site, it’s going to be a place where kids are going to want to hang out. You’ve got this site sitting there up on a hill, just outside the city limits of Fairmont — it’s an attractive place to just go and hang out. There’s grassy fields, there’s this big parking lot. There’s these weird, beat up buildings that you can wander around in. And then containers of stuff, all this different equipment.

What we realized and learned when we went there is wild. Parts of it are really, really dangerous and radioactive. But as soon as the article came out, the EPA really kicked into high gear. They had found levels of radioactivity even higher than we found. The EPA is now working with the community. They’ve set up a call center for local residents to get information on the site. I was told by an EPA official they’re in the process of fencing it off, and moving forward to see if it fits the role of a national Superfund site. So they’re in the process of — I wouldn’t say cleaning it up — but setting it up for a possible cleanup and at least making sure that people from the town can’t move around in it.

Adams: The other piece of this that’s alarming is that this is not a unique situation. You found sites like this elsewhere in Appalachia as well as the U.S. So this is not a singular phenomenon limited to Fairmont Brine.

Nobel: Some of these sites, they often don’t operate for longer than a year or two or three, because it’s a really difficult task to remove all the contaminants. To treat oilfield waste is a lot harder than these companies make it out to be. So what you find is, you have a bunch of sites that are currently operating, they’re hard to access, no one’s gonna let you in there and want to show an investigative science journalist around. And then you have these abandoned sites that aren’t operating anymore, but maybe they’re fenced off and they’re deep in the woods, and there’s still a security person guarding it.

Fairmont Brine was different. It was just right off the main road, and it was all open. Other people were hanging out there and they were entering it, and we entered it just like them. So it was really a rare window to ground truth. The concerns that had piled up over time.

An aerial view of a power plant.
Veolia’s Clearater facility in Doddridge County, West Virginia.

Photo Credit: Ted Auch/FracTracker Alliance, 2020

In other instances, such as the Clearwater plant, which is in Doddridge County along Highway 50 in northern West Virginia, I didn’t have access to the site and I still don’t, but there’s an equal amount of concern, in my opinion. This is another facility that was processing oilfield wastewater. This facility claimed that they could take 600 truckloads a day.

So if you go around the oilfield, you see the brine trucks. They look like these little septic tank trucks can hold maybe like 4,000 gallons. Six hundred of those trucks a day. That is a lot of oilfield wastewater, and they had grandiose language for how they were going to operate this plant. I mean, they claimed that this Clearwater plant was going to be one of the greatest environmental assets for the oil and gas industry in recent American history. The West Virginia governor was there giving a statement for the opening. There was really big money behind this plan. It cost like a quarter of a billion dollars, and involved a union between a Colorado energy company and Terra resources, which is big in northern West Virginia, and this really savvy fancy French waste and water management company called Veolia, which has operations all over the world.

It kind of represents an opposite end of the spectrum from Fairmont Brine, which was operated by a company based out of Pittsburgh. It’s pretty local. They’ve got investors, but it’s on a different scale than this company where you actually have a really major company that is known all over the world. But I was skeptical from the beginning. I visited that site with oilfield workers, and then after less than two years of operations, the site was shut down. I think what’s significant there is, the local news story was that it was shut because gas prices went down and it wasn’t economically viable any longer. But what I learned in reporting that story is the site was actually shuttered because it just wasn’t working again.

Whether it was the local capital setting up this small plant in Fairmont, or whether it was international capital setting up this major facility with a lot of gusto — both of them did not work. The difference though, is with Fairmont Brine, we go in and we saw the mess, and the mess is devastating. We were able to test to know exactly how radioactive the waste left on site was — and it’s very radioactive. Clearwater is a bit more of a black box, because I don’t have access to that site, and so I think there’s a huge concern of what is left on site there. But until I can connect maybe with a former worker who can serve as a whistleblower and lay out just what happened there, or get access to the site, or work with the state to try and enable them to get access, we still don’t know just what sort of mess is left up on that particular hillside. 

Part of what strikes me, as I talk to community members as they learn about this, it’s kind of like I went down the rabbit hole as a reporter, and when I publish these stories, and a community member or worker reads what was actually happening at these facilities and what was left behind, they go down their own rabbit hole. They suddenly are learning about a part of the oil and gas industry they never knew about. And what I think has been really unfortunate is that these facilities are still getting built, they’re still getting permitted by the state, and in most cases, the community is still unaware.

You have these harms piling up, and people are not informed about them. And this is especially the case in communities where there’s a legitimate need for jobs. And so you know, it makes our mission of trying to spread awareness on this topic really important. It’s like profiting off the lack of knowledge that’s really worrisome to me. These are the things we try and get to the bottom of, and dig up. So I appreciate [that] I have a chance to expose this, because it does need to be exposed.