Schlumberger applies for new permit to store radioactive materials underground near Demerara River

Last Updated on Wednesday, 8 February 2023, 0:19 by Denis Chabrol

Left to right: SLB Consultant, James Doug Aitken, SLB’s HSE expert Yuri Mozhaev and SLB’s Legal Counsel Kyle Prescod.

The United States-headquartered oil well drilling support company, Schlumberger (SLB), has applied for a fresh permit to store radioactive material in pits near the Demerara River, but representatives of the company on Tuesday ran into a firestorm of criticism at a public consultation.

Schlumberger’s Legal Counsel, Kyle Prescod told reporters after the consultation that after the application to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was made in December, 2022, that regulatory agency has already conducted a site visit and has not found any worrisome radioactive levels from the Radioactive Source Storage and Calibration Facility. They have actually done various monitoring; they actually came to our facility to do monitoring of the RA (radioactive) facility,” he said.

He said Tuesday’s consultation was held on the EPA’s recommendation to operationalise the Environmental Assessment and Management Plan.

Mr Prescod said SLB did not know whether it would need to do an Environmental Impact Assessment for the new application or a further development of the Environmental Assessment and Management Plan. He explained that the radioactive sources are needed for evaluation of reservoirs offshore. “Without those sources, it then becomes extremely difficult for Guyana to benefit from its reservoirs offshore because, then, you cannot characterise the reservoir, you cannot assess the reservoirs etc so the sources are needed for those operations and for the benefit of the country,” he said.

Asked what would happen if the EPA refuses to grant a permit for the resumption of its operations at Houston, East Bank Demerara, Mr Prescod did not want to  firmly commit himself but indicated that the company’s options would include searching for a new location. “We are in the hands of the regulator so whatever the regulator says in terms of whether an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) is required or if the facility needs to be relocated, we’ll have to respect and adhere to those,” he said.

Participants at the Schlumberger Guyana Inc. public engagement session on February 8, 2023 at Parc Rayne.

He sought to justify SLB’s decision to store the radioactive materials near the Demerara River, saying it was safer to transport it bring it by sea, up river and store it at its Houston location because it would riskier moving it further inland by road. “The proximity to the river eliminates road transportation of radiation sources so the sources are shipped, they come directly into our facility, it goes straight into our storage pits,” he said. Mr Prescod further explained that when they the radiation sources are required offshore, they are taken out of the pits, calibrated into the tools and sent offshore.

Of the more than 30 persons, who attended the public stakeholder engagement at Parc Rayne, Rahaman’s Turn, Greater Georgetown, only about a dozen were connected to nearby communities. Dominating discussions from the floor were Vanda Radzik and Danuta Radzik who in December, 2022 secured a High Court judgement against SLB including an injunction against SLB blocking it for resuming operations of the Radioactive Source Storage and Calibration Facility unless it complies with the law.

The High Court said the EPA should have given reasons for waiving the need for an Environmental Impact Assessment.

SLB Consultant, James Doug Aitken, who provided a scientific explanation about radioactive materials, told attendees that the radioactive materials would not be affected if water from the nearby Demerara River floods the pits. “Suppose they become flooded with saltwater, they are not going into the environment for which those sources were designed. Nothing will happen with the sources, they will not corrode. They can stay there for hundreds of years without becoming corroded by the saltwater. They will not release radioactive material,” he said, Mr Aitken promised that SLB would extract the sources before 100 years and take them to a safe place that is not flooded.  He said the pits are more than two meters above mean sea level, which is 17 meters above Guyana level.

In response to a question from an educator about the impact of SLB’s operations on students of Houston Secondary School, Mr Aitken, he reiterated that no one would be affected and at the same time announced that steps would be taken to heighten monitoring. “We are probably going to increase the number of environmental monitoring stations outside,” he said. Mr Aiken categorically stated that, “we are not emitting radiation outside our facility.”

SLB’s Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) expert, Yuri Mozhaev said the radioactive source is never opened and could not lead to soil or water pollution. “When the source is used, it’s still sealed. It’s never unsealed. When the source goes down, what happens is the tool sends the signal only; it’s ionised radiation, it’s a gamma ray that goes in and comes back. The material is never exposed,” he said.

City businessman, Roshan Khan, however, told Mr Aiken that he rejected his explanation. “I don’t trust you because you only want to make money,” said Mr Khan, a member of the Muslim community. In a sharp retort, Mr Aiken told Mr Khan, “buy your own meters or come with the EPA as they have done already.”

An attendee asked the SLB officials whether it would not be better to give Guyana some time to have a radiation hazard substance management or plan. The company’s Legal Counsel said in countries where there are no regulations, SLB adopts the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) standard.

Vanda Radzik said none of the panelist answered or referred to the public list of violations, fines and civil action globally and in Guyana raised by Danuta Radzik. “You just want to skate over it,” she said.  She said there was no evidence in Guyana’s Official Gazette that the Houston area has bee zoned as industrial

“Take your stuff from the ocean to ‘frickin’ USA and Houston and bypass Houston, East Bank Demerara. We don’t want you here,” she said. As the meeting progressed, Ms Radzik refused to be interrupted or prevented from continuing her remarks by Mr Prescod and at one point even went to head table and switched off the microphone he was using.

Former City Councillor, Welton Clarke questioned how the company could justify that nothing would happen to the radioactive sources even if it is 100 years. “We are not dealing with things that could be reversed by the snap of a finger,” he said. He recommended that the radioactive sources be stored on the high seas like has been done with the storage of extracted oil.

Of the 511 persons employed by SLB, 247 are Guyanese. The company said it plans to hire another 90 persons in Guyana.