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Concerned citizens group meets to oppose local storage of oilfield waste

Mark Kovash, left, spoke out about radioactive waste facilities at the public meeting hosted by the Dunn County Concerned Citizens group Tuesday at the High Plains Cultural Center in Killdeer. (Press Photo by Andrew Haffner)1 / 2
Joletta Bird Bear, left, said the health hazards of radioactive waste sites should be addressed as a factor in their construction. Don Morrison, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, right, looked on as speakers from his organization began the Tuesday night meeting with informational presentations. (Press Photo by Andrew Haffner)2 / 2

KILLDEER -- Residents of Dunn County and beyond gathered Tuesday night at the High Plains Cultural Center to visit over coffee, cookies and radioactive oilfield waste landfills.

Darrel Dorgan, head of the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition environmental group and brother of former Sen. Byron Dorgan, began the informational session portion of the event hosted by the Dunn County Concerned Citizens group with a firm rejection of radioactive dump sites.

“The oil industry brought incredible economic prosperity to this part of North Dakota,” Dorgan said to the 50-some audience members, “but now that oil prices have collapsed, you’re left with stacked rigs and people leaving, and you’re now asked to double down and get into the radioactive waste business and allow dumpsites. Don’t do it.”

Among the detriments of radioactive dumping, he continued, are long-term, radiation-caused illnesses and decreased property values.

Dorgan cited the state Legislature-approved increase in acceptable levels of radioactivity to be accepted in landfills, from 5 to 50 picometers, as a carcinogenic health hazard. He also spoke to the importance of local community organizations in preventing the establishment of dump sites in potentially affected areas and expressed skepticism that state regulators could accurately control safety at those facilities.

David Schwalbe, a member of the environmentally focused Dakota Resource Council, followed Dorgan with a case study of Oaks Disposal, a radioactive waste facility located near Glendive, Mont. In doing so, he identified factors he said were indicative of dangerous qualities, such as leakage of materials from trucks bound for the dump and a lack of security at the site, as accompanying to establishing such a dump.

Larry Heilmann, a molecular biologist and former researcher at North Dakota State University, discussed health hazards of long-term exposure to radioactive materials, such as radium and radon, that may be found in oilfield wastes.

While Heilmann said some of the dangers of storing radioactive wastes could be mitigated, he charged the North Dakota Department of Health as “essentially operating on an honor system” when it came to dumping special materials in designated facilities.

‘It needs to be done the right way’

Attendants of the meeting came -- for the most part -- already concerned about and opposed to the prospect of establishing a facility to store radioactive oilfield waste within county lines.

Many had reacted to such a concept last summer, when a proposal to construct a radioactive oilfield waste dump was brought before the Dunn County Planning and Zoning Commission and County Commission last year. That proposal was ultimately rejected by both groups and there is no future landfill currently in discussion.

Mark Kovash, a wheat farmer and cattle rancher who lives about 18 miles south of Killdeer, said the site for that initially discussed project was slated to be about a half-mile east of his property.

“I would have seen it through my kitchen window constantly,” Kovash said. “Any runoff that would have came from it would have been on my land. We had to get kind of mad at our commissioners to stop it.”

Citizens came from even farther out to hear the information and protest the concept of a local oilfield waste storage site.

Joletta Bird Bear, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, came from her home in rural Mandaree to hear the speakers at the event.

Bird Bear said the high oil exploration and extraction levels on the Fort Berthold Reservation lands had led six or seven tribal members affiliated with the Dakota Resource Council to attend the Tuesday meeting. She said she appreciated the focus on bringing together local residents to work towards the interests of landowners and added she was opposed to the radioactivity increase approved by the state Legislature, a move she believed would lead to long-term increases in environmental illnesses.

“With any industrial development, I think the people that live in the community that are going to be impacted need to understand the part of the formula that’s never spoken about,” she said. “People’s lives will be lost due to the changes in their community, so certainly people in the community should know that.”

Among the residents and landowners from the county itself, some came from other Oil Patch regions.

Larry Novak lives in Alexander, in the heart of McKenzie County’s oil activity, but said he attended the meeting in Killdeer because a similar special waste site had been proposed near his area.

Novak said he’d been looking for information about such facilities and what impacts their construction might have on surrounding areas.

After hearing Dorgan, Schwalbe and Heilmann, Novak said he felt the information they’d conveyed supported his initial reservations about the concept.

“It kind of confirms everything that I’ve had the gut feeling that any radiation is probably a bad thing,” he said.

Adding to that gut feeling, Novak said, was a lack of available information or communication coming from the initiators of the proposal in Alexander. The site indicated for the hypothetical waste site, which is part of the Indian Hills Disposal Inc., was concerning to him because of its surrounding features, such as close proximity to U.S. Highway 85 and rural water lines.

“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take some of it in North Dakota,” Novak said, “but it needs to be done the right way.”

Commissioners: Facility could increase control of materials

Dunn County Commissioners Donna Scott and Daryl Dukart attended Tuesday’s meeting and said afterward that finding that right way is their central focus.

Scott, who is also on the Dunn County Planning and Zoning Commission, said the county commission was looking to find the safest way to dispose of drill cuttings produced in Dunn County, a major oil-producing region.

She said any hypothetical plan approved for a conditional-use permit would come laden with amendments aimed at governing the waste site to control its intake and minimize risks of exposure.

Scott saw the control and maintenance of drill cuttings as one of the attendant responsibilities of hosting drilling and oil extraction, and said she doesn’t “think it’s right” to offload the substances into neighboring areas.

Dukart, who serves as president of the North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties, said oil companies are now allowed to dispose of radioactive wastes themselves on the site of their drilling operations. A centralized dump, he said, could give the county a better mechanism to manage the radioactive wastes already being disposed of in the area.

“We have over 800-some sites in Dunn County that have these in today,” he said. “But these sites are unregulated. … There’s no monitoring, nothing going on. We’re not jumping off the boat and saying we need a waste pit put in today, but what we’re saying is, ‘Could we have a waste pit put in -- a real honest, regulated pit?’”

Both commissioners said the public concerns expressed at the meeting could be incorporated in any hypothetical agreement to build a waste-holding facility.

Many in attendance were concerned the increase in acceptable picometers would attract radioactive waste producers in other states looking to dump in North Dakota. But Dukart and Scott said local sourcing of materials would “definitely” be required for would-be users of the site.

Dukart said the pit in Glendive described by Schwalbe had caught his attention and matched with other information he’d heard of a similar site in Wyoming. Such negative case studies, he said, would be useful in determining which restrictions would be necessary to apply to any agreement in Dunn County.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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