Tag Archives: toxic soil

The Toxic Shadow of Abandoned Oil Infrastructure

Wearing blue hard hats, white hazmat suits and respirator masks, workers carted away bags of debris on a recent morning from a sprawling and now-defunct oil refinery once operated by Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES). Other laborers ripped asbestos from the guts of an old boiler house, part of a massive demolition and redevelopment of the plant, which closed in 2019 after a series of explosions at the facility.

Plans call for the nearly 1,400-acre site to be transformed into a new commercial hub with warehousing and offices. All it will take is a decade, hundreds of millions of dollars, and confronting 150 years’ worth of industrial pollution, including buried rail cars and a poisonous stew of waste fuels poured onto the ground. A U.S. refinery cleanup of this size and scope has no known precedent, remediation experts said. It’s a glimpse of what lies ahead if the United States hopes to wean itself off fossil fuels and clean up the toxic legacy of oil, gas and coal.

President Joe Biden wants to bring the United States to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to fight climate change through a shift to clean-energy technologies, while reducing pollution in low-income and minority neighborhoods near industrial facilities. It’s a transition fraught with challenges. Among the biggest is what to do with the detritus left behind. The old PES plant is just one of approximately 135 oil refineries nationwide, to say nothing of the country’s countless gas stations, pipelines, storage hubs, drill pads and other graying energy infrastructure.

In Philadelphia, a private-sector company is taking the lead. Hilco Redevelopment Partners, a real estate firm that specializes in renovating old industrial properties, bought the PES refinery out of bankruptcy for $225.5 million in June…The full extent of the pollution won’t be understood for years. Also uncertain is the ability of the refinery’s previous owners to pay their share of the cleanup. The facility has had multiple owners over its lifetime and responsibility has been divided between them through business agreements and legal settlements.
Oil refining at the Philadelphia site began in 1870, 100 years before the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Gasoline, once a worthless byproduct of heating oil, was routinely dumped by the refinery into the soil, according to historians and researchers. Leaks and accidents spewed more toxins. The June 2019 blasts alone released 676,000 pounds of hydrocarbons, PES said at the time. The Philadelphia site is not unique. About half of America’s 450,000 polluted former industrial and commercial sites are contaminated with petroleum, according to the EPA.

Cleanup in Philadelphia will be painstaking. After asbestos abatement comes the demolition and removal of 3,000 tanks and vessels, along with more than 100 buildings and other infrastructure, the company said. Then comes the ground itself. Hilco’s Perez said dirt quality varies widely on the site and will have to be handled differently depending on contamination levels. Clearing toxins like lead must be done with chemical rinses or other technologies…The site also has polluted groundwater and giant benzene pools lurking underneath, according to environmental reports Sunoco filed over the years with the federal and state governments.

Excerpts from Laila Kearney, 150 years of spills: Philadelphia refinery cleanup highlights toxic legacy of fossil fuels, Reuters, Feb. 16, 2021
 

Nuclear Waste in Australia: rusting and leaking

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is the federal government agency for scientific research in Australia.
CSIRO faces a $30 million clean up bill after barrels of radioactive waste at a major facility were found to be “deteriorating rapidly” and possibly leaking.

An inspection found “significant rusting” on many of the 9,725 drums, which are understood to contain radioactive waste and other toxic chemicals.  Much of the radioactive waste was trucked to Woomera from Sydney in the mid 1990s.  CSIRO flagged a $29.7 million budget provision for “remediation works” at a remote location in its latest annual report.

Almost 10,000 drums of radioactive waste are stored at a CSIRO facility in Woomera, South Australia.  The Woomera facility is currently one of Australia’s largest storage sites for low and intermediate-level radioactive waste.   A damning report of the Woomera facility was issued by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) after an inspection in April 2016.   “Evidence was sighted that indicates the drums are now beginning to deteriorate rapidly,” read the report, seen by Fairfax Media.  “Significant rust on a number of the drums, deterioration of the plastic drum-liners and crushing of some stacked drums was observed.

Tests confirmed the presence of radioactive isotopes at one location and inspectors said there was a possibility the drums were leaking.”Although unlikely, there is the possibility that the presence of deceased animals such as rodents and birds may indicate that some of the drums, which contain industrial chemicals, may be leaking into the environment.”  The mixture of water and concentrated radioactive material inside some of the drums also had the potential to produce explosive hydrogen gas, inspectors found.

They also noted CSIRO had little knowledge of what was inside many of the barrels, some of which are believed to date back more than 50 years.  “Without full knowledge [of] the contents of the drums, risks cannot be fully identified and risk controls cannot be appropriately implements to protect people and the environment,” inspectors noted in the report.

Many of the drums are understood to contain contaminated soil generated by government research into radioactive ores at Melbourne’s Fishermans Bend throughout the 1940s and 1950s.  The toxic soil was discovered by the Department of Defence in 1989, who sent it to Sydney’s Lucas Heights facility before it was palmed off to Woomera in 1994.

The country’s other major radioactive waste storage facility at Lucas Heights, Sydney, is rapidly approaching full capacity. 

Coupled with issues at the CSIRO site, the revelations highlighted the urgent need for a national radioactive waste storage solution, experts said.

Excerpts from Rusted barrels of radioactive waste cost CSIRO $30 million, Sydney Morning Herald, Mar. 13, 2017