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Uncovering the Oil Industry’s Radioactive Secret (Part 1): Into the Action

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In a previous article, we gave a brief overview of the suffering and heartbreak Keith Macdonald experienced since being exposed to high levels of radiation from naturally occurring radioactive materials (“NORM”) in 2000 while working for Royal Dutch Shell in Syria.  In 2020, Justin Nobel wrote an article detailing what happened that fateful day, the personal tragedy that ensued, and the steps MacDonald had taken, without success, to hold those responsible accountable.

As Nobel’s article is longer than most would read in one sitting, we are republishing it in sections in a four-part series.  This article is the first part.  You can read Nobel’s article in full HERE.


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By Justin Nobel, republished from DeSmog

Cancerous lesions have developed across Keith MacDonald’s body and his son is dead from leukaemia. His life has disintegrated, and in his eyes, fault lies with the third richest company on earth. It is headquartered in the Netherlands, incorporated in the United Kingdom, and is an entity (thanks to the Parliamentary Pension Fund) that every single British MP has a stake in — Royal Dutch Shell.

The story of how MacDonald got here is a tale of adventure and tragedy fit for a Hollywood thriller, only it is real. Even with many unknowns, MacDonald’s case unearths a shocking part of the world’s most powerful industry that somehow has remained hidden for generations.

MacDonald was born on a military base in Scotland in 1951. When he was three years old, his older brother was killed in a tragic cliff accident—the boy chased a stray football over the edge and fell 100 feet to his death. “My mother couldn’t deal with the stress and became obsessed with my wellbeing,” says MacDonald. “Safety, safety, safety, all of my life. It was almost claustrophobic. I became the family rebel and left home.”

Image: Photos of Keith MacDonald and his brother and mother (left), and their graves (right)

His oilfield story begins in the early 1970s. MacDonald was a rock and roll roadie, setting up equipment for Santana, Elton John, and Rod Stewart — “I was making good money, having a ball.” One autumn day in 1975, he hitched a ride to Birmingham with a friend who had an interview for a job inspecting oil and gas pipelines. The recruitment manager for British Industrial X-Ray wore a shirt and tie, looked MacDonald over and with a string of words that would change the course of his life, offered him a job.

Into the action

This began a tour of work in some of the world’s most lucrative and remote oil and gas fields, the type of adventurous life that many British men who got into the business in that era can relate to.

“It all happened so quick I couldn’t believe my luck,” says MacDonald. “I was going from peanuts a day to £50 a day, and eventually £5,000 a month.”

MacDonald started on a pipeline in Wales and by 1977 had a job inspecting pipelines as an industrial radiographer in the Libyan oilfields, surrounded by bleached Saharan sands and the hottest temperatures on the planet. A stint in Saudi Arabia followed, then a two-year job in the United Arab Emirates building gas plants where MacDonald was assistant quality assurance superintendent. He spent much of the 1990s in Nigeria, working for Chevron as a senior company representative on a barge that fabricated and upgraded oil rigs. By the late 1990s, he was in Oman.

MacDonald is “completely reliable,” one Omani supervisor wrote on a reference form, and has “wide and valuable experience of the inspection and maintenance of oilfield equipment.”

On 13 March 2000, MacDonald celebrated his 49th birthday. Around the same time, he landed in Damascus, Syria, to take a job arranged by the UK oilfield service company, Gray Mackenzie. He would be working for the Al Furat Petroleum Company (AFPC) in the rich Omar oilfield of eastern Syria. It was to be an exciting job, and his first time in the vibrant heart of the Middle East’s oil and gas country, working under one of the world’s storied big majors, Shell.

His penny-pinching days as a roadie were long gone. The constraints of his concerned mother and the cloud of his brother’s accidental death seemed long gone, too.

MacDonald loved his work, and there was an overwhelming sense that he had made it. “You come across people who get up in the morning and are like, ‘Ugh, I got to go to work,’” says MacDonald. “That wasn’t me. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Shell, according to the Wall Street Journal, helped build the Middle East into “a petroleum powerhouse”. AFPC was founded in 1985, a joint venture between the state-owned General Petroleum Corporation, a subsidiary of Shell called Syria Shell Petroleum Development, and other groups. Shell gave the Syrians technology, experts, and technical expertise, according to an AFPC website. A map shows Shell’s various interests in Syria, including the Omar oilfield, not far from the Iraqi border.

Image: Screenshot of the webpage showing maps of Al Furat Petroleum Corporation’s operations.

In 2001, the closest year to MacDonald’s time of work for which Shell’s annual reports are readily available, the company produced 48,000 barrels of oil a day in Syria – at the time just over two per cent of their global output. Although Shell left Syria in 2011, as civil war broke out and the European Union imposed sanctions, there is still a record of how the company co-sponsored a festival for “Arab Environment Day,” supported a forum on women leaders, raised money for the blind, and worked with the Ministry of Education to develop lectures for school children about traffic accidents and environmental safety. “We invested more than $8 billion in Syria,” Shell’s general manager for the country, Graham Henley, is quoted as saying. 

By the time MacDonald got to Syria, he had worked in oil and gas fields on three continents, but he immediately noticed there was something different about the Omar field. “Wellheads were blocked off with barbed wire fence that prevented anyone from getting close,” recalls MacDonald. “There was yellow caution tape on each side of the fence, and large signs with writing in English that read: ‘Radiation – Do Not Enter.’”

There was something else different about work in the Syrian oil fields. MacDonald had to take a 40-hour course on what’s referred to in the industry as Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials, or NORM. The topic had come up in other oilfields but this was the first time he had been forced to formally learn anything, although it wasn’t much of an education. “The exam we took at the end had all the right answers already crossed in,” says MacDonald.

Image: AFPC NORM examination with answers already filled in.

Regardless, radioactivity was hardly on his mind in Syria. He stayed in a well-run workcamp that served a British breakfast and spent free time listening to rock music and drinking beers on the banks of the Euphrates River in the city of Deir Ez-Zor, part of a culturally-rich region that has been inhabited by humans for 11,000 years, and in more recent times was a brutal ISIS stronghold and a flashpoint in the Syrian war.

About the Author

Justin Nobel writes on issues of science and the environment for Rolling Stone, DeSmog and various other publications. During the years 2017 to 2020, Nobel was reporting on oil and gas development across the US whilst also researching and authoring a book on oil and gas radioactivity. Our article above is extracted from a 2020 article written by Nobel and published by DeSmog titled ‘The Syrian Job: Uncovering the Oil Industry’s Radioactive Secret

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