Halliburton Co. (HAL:US) crew members who lost a radioactive rod used in drilling wells in West Texas weren’t guilty of criminal conduct, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said as a hunt for the tool entered a fourth day.
FBI officials working with the Texas Department of Transportation questioned three employees who were unable to locate the device this week after it went missing on a 130-mile (209-kilometer) route from Pecos to Odessa, according to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission incident report today.
“The FBI would only say that they believed there was no criminal activity involved with the missing” tool, Halliburton told state officials according to the NRC report. A well near Pecos, where the device was last used, has been searched three times, it said.
A National Guard unit based in Austin sent a three-person team with detection gear yesterday to assist local officials, said Amy Cook, a spokeswoman for the Guard. The Texas Department of State Health Services said yesterday it requested help to find the radioactive item, which can pose a health risk if touched or held for several days.
Halliburton lost the unit on Sept. 11, according to an NRC report. Pickup trucks with detection gear retraced the route of a vehicle that carried the device before it was lost. The trucks drove at 10 miles an hour between Pecos and Odessa without finding the unit, the report said.
“It’s not something that produces radiation in an extremely dangerous form,” Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the health department, said in an interview. “But it’s best for people to stay back, 20 or 25 feet.”
Oil-field service companies lower the radioactive units into wells to let workers identify places to break apart rock for a drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which frees oil and natural gas. While the loss of such a probe occurs from time to time, it has been years since a device with americium-241/beryllium, the material in Halliburton’s device, was misplaced in Texas, Van Deusen said.
Loss of such a device hasn’t been reported to the NRC within at least the past five years, Maureen Conley, an agency spokeswoman, said in an interview. She said the material would have to be in someone’s physical possession for several hours for it to be considered harmful. The agency works with states to regulate use of radioactive materials.
Americium-241 also is used in smoke detectors, medical diagnostic devices, aircraft fuel gauges and distance-sensing tools that use its gamma-radiation properties, according to information on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website. The material mostly emits alpha particles, along with some gamma rays, the EPA said.
Halliburton called the Reeves County sheriff’s office in Pecos after discovering the item was missing, police sergeant Jerry Millan said.
“They told us they had lost a radioactive rod,” he said in an interview. “I’ve worked in the oil fields, so I knew what it was. We’ve been assisting with the search.”
The seven-inch stainless-steel cylinder is about an inch in diameter and marked with the radiation-warning symbol, Halliburton said in a statement yesterday. The cylinder is marked “do not handle.”
Halliburton told the state that workers discovered on Sept. 11 that a lock on the container used to transport the device was missing, along with the unit, after driving a truck to a well south of Odessa from from a site near Pecos, according to the NRC report. The company is offering a reward and is working with local law enforcement, the highway patrol and health officials in the search, the company said.
“Halliburton is working with authorities to resolve this matter as quickly as possible,” the company said in its statement.
To contact the reporters on this story: Kathy Warbelow in Austin at firstname.lastname@example.org; Brian Wingfield in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org