Radioactivity in Oily Sludge and Produced Waste Water from Oil: Environmental Concerns and Potential Remedial Measures

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[tweetmeme] Avin E. Pillay (Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi), Fadhil M. Salih (Sultan Qaboos University) and Muthana I. Maleek (College of Science, University of Wasit) have completed a paper on a rarely focused on environmental impact of oil production – radioactive sludge contamination.  The abstract to their paper is:

Produced water separated from oil is usually returned to the environment and could permeate through the water table. If such water is contaminated with radioactive substances, it could create a definite threat to the water supply, especially in arid regions where ground water and overhead streams are sources of potable water. Low-level radioactive contamination of oily sludge is equally hazardous and also leads to detrimental pollution of water resources. We investigated the distribution of 226Ra, 40K and 228Ac in produced waste water and oily sludge and found abnormal levels of radioactivity. A total of 90 ground wastewater samples were collected from different sites for a period of one year. The presence of these radionuclides was identified by their characteristic gamma rays. The detection system consisted of a high-purity germanium detector. Our results show that about 20% of the samples exhibited 20–60 Bq/L radioactivity and ~6% of the samples exceeded 60 Bq/L. Roughly 70% of the experimental samples fell in the range of 2–20 Bq/L, which still exceeded the maximum admissible drinking-water limit 0.2 Bq/L.

The introduction to this paper reads:

In desert regions water is precious, and the demand for good quality water is rapidly increasing. Most areas rely heavily on overhead streams and underground supplies to feed livestock and for domestic purposes . The oil processing industry discharges considerable volumes of waste water daily. Produced waste water is the aqueous component separated from oil. This aqueous phase is in contact not only with the oil but also with the sludge that is associated with the oil. As a result, various components of the ecosystem could be affected leading to undesirable pollution. Waste water extracted from oil is usually chemically treated and returned to the environment, thus it is one of the most significant sources of ground water pollution, especially if it has elevated levels of natural radioactivity. If waste water disposed of in the environment finds its way into aquifers, it could pollute the water table. Groundwater movement is generally very slow compared to movement of surface water, and usually travels less than 100 feet a year  . Because of this, the radioactivity could concentrate in slow moving water bodies and persist for many years, eventually posing a lethal threat to the ecosystem. This threat to sustainable development is therefore our primary concern. The maximum permissible level of radioactivity in drinking water is 0.2 Bq/L. Some of our experimental samples contained radioactive levels in 20–60 Bq/L, while others were even higher—up to 100 Bq/L. Since ground water is vital for both human consumption in arid countries and irrigation and industrial purposes, it is essential to protect groundwater sources in desert regions. It should be underscored that when the waste water is dumped, it invariably seeps through the soil and gradually contaminates the water table and shallow groundwater.

Hence, if we know beforehand the level of radioactivity of the dumped water, the potential hazard can be conveniently assessed and averted. This is relatively cost-effective as regular groundwater is usually monitored by drilling wells and analyzing samples from the wells for contaminants. It is thus imperative to be able to detect the changes in natural systems resulting from such pollution. Our primary objectives, therefore, were to: (i) evaluate the potential impact of radioactive contamination on the environment; and (ii) suggest possible procedures for remediation.

Read the full article in PDF format by clicking here.

Citation: Pillay, A.E.; Salih, F.M.; Maleek, M.I. Radioactivity in Oily Sludge and Produced Waste Water from Oil: Environmental Concerns and Potential Remedial Measures. Sustainability 2010, 2, 890-901.

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