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Montana moves to regulate radioactive oilfield waste sites

State Health Department environmental chief David Glatt, right, and waste program manager Scott Radig listen during a meeting of the State Health Council as new rules for disposing of radioactive waste were moved forward in 2015. (Lauren Donovan, Billings Tribune) 1 / 4
These Geiger pedestals at the McKenzie County landfill weigh station are the first in the country, installed in 2014, to detect radioactive waste. They're so sensitive, they have beeped because a truck driver had ingested a barium product for medical testing. (Lauren Donovan, Billings Tribune)2 / 4
Equipment at Oaks Disposal, located northwest of Glendive, Mont., opened up a new disposal area at the waste site in 2014. Once dirt work was completed, the required clay base, impermeable liners and leachate collection system were installed. (Lauren Donovan, Billings Tribune) 3 / 4
These orange-tinted filter socks were most likely "hot," according to McKenzie County landfill manager Rick Schreiber in 2014. He initially received the report that thousands of pounds of the potentially radioactive filter socks and other material was leaking off a trailer in a rural location in the county. (Lauren Donovan, Billings Tribune)4 / 4

BILLINGS, Mont. — Extraction companies have always known exactly what to do with the fossil fuels pulled out of the Bakken formation.

But early in the boom, no one really knew what to do with the tons of radioactive waste that drillers produced.

"Couple of municipal landfills started getting materials coming in from the landfill," said Scott Radig, who retired earlier this year as director of waste management for the North Dakota Department of Health. "And they really weren't set up to take filter socks and oilfield waste. They were set up to take oilfield trash."

The filter socks were the main culprit. They collect naturally occurring radiation by filtering wastewater from fracking, and they're discarded in large numbers. Prior to 2016, North Dakota tightly restricted the dumping of radioactive waste in landfills. Illegal dumps popped up across the state, including one in an abandoned gas station.

By 2013, extraction companies found a haven in Montana, which had no administrative rules for radioactive oilfield waste. The only landfill of its kind in Montana, located near Glendive, has taken in about 253,000 tons of oilfield waste since 2013.

Now, Montana is moving ahead with regulations. On Aug. 18, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality released its first proposal for radioactive oilfield waste dumps. The rules would dictate sampling, storage and radiation emissions standards for this type of waste.

Montana regulators disagree that the situation was lawless — the state's sole facility has an operating agreement with the state that touches on many aspects of the upcoming official rules. But environmental watchdogs are applauding the move toward a standardized system.

The Northern Plains Resource Council, a Billings-based conservation organization, has been advocating for tighter regulation of oilfield waste. The group's press release said on Tuesday that, while more improvements can be made, the proposed rules are a welcome sign.

"This is the DEQ's opportunity to do it right," said Seth Newton, a Glendive-area rancher who was quoted in the release. "There are still concerns that need to be addressed to protect our water and our livelihoods."

Radioactivity

The Oaks Disposal Landfill started taking truckloads in 2013. It was opened by Ross Oakland, whose $2 million donation led to Dawson County High School's state-of-the-art athletic complex.

Buckhorn Energy Services of Colorado acquired the landfill in 2015.

The facility sits about 25 miles northwest of town and is still the only facility operating in Montana that takes radioactive oilfield waste. It's the only licensed landfill of that kind, anyway. In 2014, the DEQ ordered a facility near Bainville to stop accepting illegal dumps of radioactive waste.

The Oaks facility entered into an operating agreement with the state that laid out how much radioactivity could be present in the waste and how it's tested. At that time, the state regulatory approach was case-by-case.

"When we first came to start licensing the types of landfills that would manage technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material, we had in place enough research that we felt comfortable that we could be environmentally protected by making those conditions part of the operating license," said Ed Thamke, DEQ bureau chief of waste and underground tank management.

Until 2016, North Dakota limited the disposal of radioactive waste to material that measured up to 5 picocuries per gram. With cleanup ongoing for illegal dump sites, the state began researching new rules in 2014. North Dakota rules now allow for the disposal of waste with a radioactivity level up to 50 picocuries per gram.

However, the North Dakota health department has not permitted any landfills to accept waste at that level, so much of the radioactive material is still trucked to Montana. The majority of radioactive waste at the Oaks facility comes from out of state — 79 percent in 2015.

"They've gotten a fair amount of waste from North Dakota," Radig said.

Landowners concerned

The DEQ's report says that its proposed radiation parameters represent a safe exposure level for people nearby. But Montana landowners have felt impacts from the busy site for years, and they're worried about potential future spills.

The Kubesh family has farmed in the area for 100 years, according to family patriarch Grant Kubesh. The dirt roads to the Oaks landfill run alongside their property.

He said that the landfill brought truck traffic — so much so that the county keeps road grading equipment out there full-time. And the trucks have spilled along the roadside.

Kubesh said the area smells like a drill site, and the wind brings over dust from atop the radioactive waste. To control the dust, the county increased the use of magnesium chloride on the road, which corroded the family's equipment.

"It was a tremendous effect on all of us here through living here," said Kubesh, 57. The Kubeshes are also Northern Plains members.

The family sued the DEQ in 2014, saying the agency failed to adequately address spills, dust control and other impacts brought by the landfill. The settlement in 2016 included a new administrative rule that required trucks to secure and cover their loads.

Water contamination is also a concern. Kubesh said they have a well within a mile of the landfill. They had it tested after the facility came online. He said an aquifer used for his livestock sits 10 feet below the landfill.

A North Dakota health department advisory said that this type of radiation poses the most risk when ingested with water or food.

Newton, the Northern Plains spokesman, also voiced concerns about water contamination in a press release. He pointed out that while groundwater testing is mandated, it's up to the landfill operator to self-report the findings.

He's also worried about how a major flood would affect that landfill and others.

The DEQ has licensed two TENORM landfills that haven't been built: one south of Outlook and another north of Culbertson. The application for another facility, which would be built near Sidney, is still under review.

Two public hearings on the proposed rules will be held next month. The first will be Sept. 7 in Helena, and the second will take place Sept. 20 in Sidney. Kubesh plans on attending one of them.

"Anything would be an improvement from just the wild West that's been going on," he said. "There's no rules."

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