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Bird Bear: Radioactive oilfield waste trade off bad for ND

Do North Dakotans really want to write off the livability and productivity of western North Dakota for a marginal boost to the oil industry? There must be ways to extract Bakken oil and gas without destroying other livelihoods and the West as a good place to live in the process.

When the Bakken oil boom started, the oil industry knew they were going to produce radioactive waste and they knew what they were required to do with it. But, they didn’t put that into their business plans. The process to increase the allowable level of radioactivity in our state began about two years ago with behind-closed-door meetings with the state Health Department and the oil industry. The result is, once again, a green light to the oil industry, this time to dump more radioactive waste in our state.

The Dalrymple administration is using parts of a report from the Argonne National Laboratory to claim the increased radioactivity is just fine. A closer look at the Argonne Report shows there are some hidden trade offs that make more radioactivity not such a good idea for people.

The Argonne Report is based on 25,000 tons per year of oilfield waste in a single landfill containing the higher levels of radioactive waste. Based on this, the study estimates people living within a 50-mile radius of a new 25,000-ton radioactive dump maybe exposed to twice the normal amount of radiation. This means our tradeoff is more childhood leukemia, illness and death.

Landfill workers exposed to the higher levels of radioactivity would potentially receive the highest estimated exposure and Argonne recommended decreasing the volume of radioactive wastes at a single landfill or alternately limiting employee hours of exposure. The exposure to oilfield workers not equipped with personal protective equipment was estimated to approach or exceed the recommended yearly exposure. Employees not handling the waste, but working nearby were not included in the study.

Radium has a half-life of about 1,600 years. Are we willing to deal with this radioactive waste for that long? And within that time, how long will it take for a major incident to occur making remote areas of North Dakota a Superfund Site? Our regulators are too lenient with the industry now, which leaves a lack of trust from the people who have already been dealing with these types of scenarios for the past decade.

Radon, Radium 226, Thorium 232, beta and gamma radiation. Where will these known carcinogens end up if North Dakota raises the allowable level of radioactive material in landfills? Jamestown, Sawyer, or Grand Forks? It’s already in Fairfield, Williston, Tioga, and others. How many radioactive dumps will we have to have? When there are violations, will the Dalrymple Administration reduce fines 90 percent as they have for other toxic contaminations?

The Dakota Resource Council is a statewide community-based group. Over half of our members live in the Bakken and many of these are landowners and or mineral rights owners. DRC members, along with many North Dakotans, believe we must make sure that we are able to live and enjoy economic success during and after the oil is extracted.

For oil companies, the tradeoff is a convenient and cheap method to dispose of growing amounts of radioactive waste. However, doing that conveniently eliminates taking into consideration the needs of those who have lived in western North Dakota for generations, working hard to build farms, ranches, and many other successful livelihoods. We need to work really hard to make sure the tradeoff doesn’t sacrifice so much that people can’t live a good, healthy life here anymore.

Bird Bear, from Mandaree, is the chair of the Dakota Resource Council’s oil and gas task force. The DRC is a North Dakota environmental group.

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