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Oil waste landfill near Fairfield uncontested so far

Billings County could be home to an oil field special waste landfill site that could house a waste pit the equivalent size of about 60 football fields by spring.

The 145-acre landfill site, which would be located north of Fairfield, would be one of a handful of oil field special waste sites in North Dakota, though more are in the planning stages.

Billings County officials approved plans for the landfill site, contingent upon North Dakota Department of Heath clearance, last year. A public hearing is tentatively scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Jan. 15 at the Medora Community Center.

If there is not "sufficient public interest" in having a hearing brought forth by Friday, however, a hearing will not be conducted, according to a public notice.

"As of right now, we haven't had anybody come forward with any concerns," DH Division of Waste Management director Scott Radig said. "If there is no hearing, people can also send in written comments on the proposal until Jan. 26."

Radig said North Dakota has four such oil waste landfill sites. Chimney Butte Environmental LLC out of Mayer, Minn., applied for the permit, which Billings County commissioners approved. With the draft permit for the project published, public review represents the final hurdle for the facility.

"Landfills tend to get a bad reputation, but that's based on legacy concerns," said John McCain, vice president of the engineering firm Carlson McCain, which is working with Chimney Butte on plans for the project. "These types of modern facilities now are carefully designed, engineered and inspected. There is no question this will be a safe facility."

Proposed for a section of land west of Highway 85 and about four miles north of Fairfield, the landfill site would have a total footprint of 145 acres, complete with evaporation and stormwater retention ponds and other features.

"Although it's a big area, there will be only 8 acres of open waste exposed at any given time," McCain said. "There are a lot of safeguards and precautions. This isn't just dumping waste into a big pit."

Dumped oil field wastes would include "solidified drill cuttings, contaminated soil from releases at production sites and solids from production tank bottoms," according to the draft permit and an internal health department memo. The facility would be in operation for 30 years and would have an acceptance rate of 320,000 cubic yards of waste per year. The site would also be monitored for 30 years after its closure.

"These types of sites actually serve the opposite purpose of what many people think," Chimney Butte chief managing partner Steve Burns said. "These wastes are being generated in large volumes right now and much of it is placed in reserve pits on the drill site. Those aren't nearly as well monitored or regulated as one of these special waste landfills. That's a point we'd like to get across."

Despite assurances that such landfill sites are safe for the environment and do not pose a threat to people living near them, some believe they pose significant risks. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has expressed concern for the health and safety of birds and other wildlife. During a hearing in Medora in early 2012, McCain admitted that some of the waste that would go into the landfill in Billings County could be radioactive.

"I don't see a problem with it," Billings County Commissioner Jim Arthaud said. "This is something that would need to be approved by the Department of Health and they have some pretty strict standards. I don't believe that waste is going to going anywhere."

Burns and McCain insist groundwater will be strictly monitored and that linings and an eventual vegetation cover will prevent against erosion and run-off. Spring Creek and Magpie Creek are the eventual sites for much of the water run-off in the general area of the proposed landfill.

A 3-foot layer of clay would lie beneath a plastic liner at the base of the landfill. If approved, Burns said the landfill could be up and running by March.

Comments, questions and written materials can be sent in care of Radig at the North Dakota Department of Health in Bismarck. Citizens are also invited to call the health department at 701-328-5166.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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