Radioactive waste on the radar: New group worried about improper disposal of oil field material

WILLISTON -- Landfill employees here discovered at least two "hot loads" this week, illustrating why a group of North Dakota citizens is worried about the proper disposal of radioactive waste that comes with oil production.

Eric Olson, operator at the Williston landfill, sets aside a bag of filter socks containing radioactive material on Thursday to be disposed of properly.

WILLISTON -- Landfill employees here discovered at least two "hot loads" this week, illustrating why a group of North Dakota citizens is worried about the proper disposal of radioactive waste that comes with oil production.

A Williston landfill operator found an estimated 100 filter socks Thursday containing naturally occurring radioactive material. The socks, which look like large tube socks and are used in oil field salt water disposal wells to filter out the solids, should have been transported out of state but instead were hidden in a city garbage can.

The discovery came a day after the Williston landfill issued a $10,000 fine to a company that illegally brought about 50 filter socks to the landfill, said landfill foreman Brad Septka.

"We're trying to do everything in our power to catch them," Septka said.

A newly formed group called the Energy Industry Waste Coalition will meet Sunday in Minot to discuss concerns about radioactive oil field waste and efforts to influence public policy.


Darrell Dorgan of Bismarck, who helped organize the group, said members worry about what happens to the radioactive material after landfills reject it.

"What's happening is it's just being scattered out here in the wind," said Dorgan, owner of Dakom Communications who reported on radioactive waste in the 1980s while working as a broadcast journalist.

The naturally occurring radioactive material, referred to by the acronym NORM, is brought to the surface as a result of drilling and other oil production activities, said Dan Harman, manager of radiation control and indoor air quality branch with the North Dakota Department of Health.

The material can be found in oil field waste, such as drill cuttings or tank sludge, Harman said. NORM is commonly found in filter socks, Harman said.

Currently, only low-level radioactive waste can be legally disposed of in North Dakota and the rest must be shipped to approved sites in Colorado, Michigan, Texas and other states.

The North Dakota Petroleum Council, an oil industry group, would like to develop a solution to safely handle the material within the state, said president Ron Ness.

The council is working with the Department of Health and the Energy and Environmental and Research Center at the University of North Dakota to study the issue.

"Unfortunately, if the only disposal options are out of state, I think that creates a bad environment for people to try to sneak bags of it into landfills," said John Harju, associate director for research with the EERC. "People don't know what to do with it."


The first steps of the EERC study, which is expected to begin in the next few weeks, include getting a handle on the nature of the material in North Dakota and understanding it in the context of radioactivity that people are exposed to every day, Harju said.

"We need to get these things into some perspective," Harju said.

For a comparison, Harman said a worker would have to stand 6 inches from bags of ceramic frac sand for 2,000 hours to get the same dosage of radiation as one dental X-ray.

North Dakota does not accept radioactive waste with levels greater than 5 picocuries per gram, which Harju called "amazingly low radiation."

Other states accept waste with higher levels, some as much as 10 times higher, Harman said.

When North Dakota officials have asked other states how they determined the rates, most based their answers on what other states did rather than relying on science, Harman said.

The Department of Health has asked the Petroleum Council to bring a science-based proposal that would be open to public comment, Harman said.

Dorgan said he worries that if North Dakota increases the level of radiation it will accept and other states lower theirs, North Dakota could become a destination for the waste.


"We could end up as the dump site," Dorgan said.

The Williston landfill already has taken steps to prevent becoming a radioactive wasteland.

Septka said the landfill increased fines for bringing in the waste from $1,000 to $10,000. Scale operators use Geiger counters to check every oilfield load and employees give drivers a list of oilfield waste management facilities.

"There's no reason for it to come to the landfills," Septka said.

The companies that receive the fines usually claim they didn't know the items were there, but Septka said the waste often appears like it was hidden.

In 2011, the Williston landfill did its own testing on two filter socks and found that one had a radiation level of 17 picocuries per gram and another had a level of 45 picocuries per gram, Septka said.

The Department of Health now receives information about every load that is rejected at a landfill and follows up to see where the waste goes, Harman said.

In addition to reports from landfills, Harman said there was a confirmed case of a sack of filter socks discovered west of Tioga along U.S. Highway 2 this spring after the snow melted that appeared to have blown off a truck, Harman said.


Edmund Baker, environmental director for the Three Affiliated Tribes, issued a warning to tribal members early this year about radioactive waste, particularly filter socks that he said can resemble fishing nets.

"There's a risk of children looking at these things not knowing what they are," Baker said.

During the recent clean-up days on the Fort Berthold Reservation, volunteers found an estimated 30 filter socks, with a third of those concentrated around the Mandaree area, Baker said.

Baker said he's working with the Environmental Protection Agency and watching what the Health Department does regarding disposal.

Don Morrison, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, which is also involved with the newly formed coalition, said the group is getting organized to make sure the public has input on policy changes the state would make about radioactive waste.

The coalition will strongly oppose new sites for radioactive storage and increasing the level of radioactivity of material that can be kept in North Dakota, Morrison said.

"It's time for North Dakotans to have a voice in deciding what's going to happen," Morrison said.

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