Recently, The Driller editor Jeremy Verdusco wrote about problem solving for contractors. I had been working on this column, and it fits right in.

Just when you think you have it under control, a problem can pop up that you never imagined. You think of product failures, maybe you had a welding issue that affected a couple thousand drill rods. Maybe a trucker strike shuts down your flow of raw materials and finished products. Here you are, business is good, things are smooth and — bam! — you suddenly need to figure out a plan to get through something unforeseen. We are experiencing this now with Covid-19.

This happened to me a few years ago. I got a call at my desk from Rip Blose. He and his son ran a scrap yard. They serviced our plant by picking up turnings, drops and any scrap metal we produced. They processed materials from many of the shops in our area, along with taking metals from individuals. They would then sell it.

One particular batch went to a steel mill in Ohio. While working one summer in the blast furnace department of Bethlehem Steel, I noted that they kept bins of scrap — part of the recipe they fed to the blast furnaces. I imagined the same fate for our scrap, but the railcar carrying it set off alarms at the mill’s entrance.

Something in that railcar that was radioactive. The mill found it easier to screen inbound materials than find out months later someone used their steel to build radioactive folding chairs (a true story). Your local landfill also probably screens for this. They traced the railcar to Blose’s Scrap Yard in their search for the origins of the “hot” steel scrap. In the process, they brought a government inspector to our shop to see if we had anything radioactive. We did.

Some areas of our business surpassed state and federal limits. We faced cleanup projects on our shop, yard, scrap yard and any other affected area. We soon found radioactive drops of 4½-inch OD by .337-inch wall tubes, which meant we likely made up drill pipe using this material and shipped it to who knows where.

We hired a firm that specialized in remediation of nuclear “spills” and met to discuss our predicament. The owner of this company, Robert Gallaghar, had been a consultant to the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. He did a quick survey and offered us some relief. Radiation levels were very low and just barely exceeded acceptable standards.

I called a company meeting of all employees. Until then, only two of us had known: myself and Terry Belter, the buyer. When I told staff about the radioactive material, I saw looks of shock. However, our consultant assured them they would get more radiation from one dental X-ray than this would provide in a year. Anyone who wanted to take time off until after cleanup was welcome to do so, we told them. Everyone stayed.

We narrowed down the source of the nuclear material to two truckloads of 4½-inch OD by .337-inch wall tubes from one of our pipe yard sources. Terry called them to let them know our situation and they investigated. Evidently, they shipped us the wrong material. Instead of new, unused product, they had sent us some tubulars that were down the hole once and had picked up the radiation on the inside of the tube, either from the formation or logging activities. 

Oilfield drilling can produce radioactive wastewater as they drill through naturally radioactive formations. “Produced” water can become more concentrated through industrial processes. They have a name for this: technologically enhanced naturally-occurring radioactive material (TENORM). The tubes sent by our pipe yard source had been used in a well with this radioactivity. Some of this material dried and remained on the inner wall of the tubes.

We brought “hot” tubes into the shop and ran them through the band saw to cut them to length. When the blade cuts through the tube, you get metal filings similar to saw dust — except these were radioactive. When we moved the tubes to the straightener, some filings fell off — and so on, throughout the shop. The area under the saw showed the most radiation. Cleanup consisted of sweeping and vacuuming up all these filings throughout the shop, a job we left to our consultant’s crew. After the inside, we had our scrap areas and pipe yard to do. Then, they went to the scrap yard. It took several weeks to clean up multiple areas.

Using sales records, we identified customers who had purchased 4½-inch OD by .337-inch wall drill pipe potentially manufactured with these radioactive tubes. We had a list of about 30, mostly contractors in the Northeast. We sent two-man teams equipped with a Geiger counter to visit each one. Most had used their drill pipe, so no radioactivity remained. The drilling process would likely blow or wash out any materials on the ID. Our expert advised us that the levels were already very low, and diluting them downhole presented no risk.

Terry Belter and our consultant worked closely to keep the project moving. This was one of Terry’s fortes: Take charge of a project and complete it. Our consultant sold us a Geiger counter to inspect all incoming raw materials. When he brought it in, he showed Terry how to use it by scanning Terry’s arm. The Geiger counter screamed and the consultant jumped back. Terry laughed. He had just been to the hospital to have a test for carpal tunnel syndrome where they inject a radioactive material.

Looking back, it seemed like a huge issue that could significantly hurt the company. But, comparing it to what we as a nation are experiencing today, it was nothing. We could detect affected areas, we could clean it up, we knew where it originated and we could track where it went. If only it was that simple with the pandemic we now face.

Do you have such a story? Let us know.

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