Where do the filter socks go? Concerns rise with proposed increase to radioactive waste levels
WILLISTON -- A special waste landfill in far western North Dakota will seek to dispose of radioactive waste, if it becomes legal. Charles Slaughter, of Canada-based Gibson Energy, said his company plans to step up at its WISCO landfill west of Wi...
WILLISTON - A special waste landfill in far western North Dakota will seek to dispose of radioactive waste, if it becomes legal.
Charles Slaughter, of Canada-based Gibson Energy, said his company plans to step up at its WISCO landfill west of Williston about 1 mile from the Montana line.
“We will modify our permit to participate in that market,” said Slaughter, adding that his company has experience with radioactive material landfills in Canada, where 20 times higher than North Dakota’s proposed 50 picocuries is allowed. Currently, the state bans anything above 5 picocuries.
“The bottom line is it’s the right thing to do. You only have to go back to the mid ’70s and Love Canal to see what happens because there weren’t proper disposal techniques,” said Slaughter, whose operation is one of 10 licensed special waste landfills in the Oil Patch, where storage tank bottoms, dirty dirt from spills and leaks, and drill cuttings are buried in lined pits. Another seven are in development.
The State Health Department is moving on new rules that will allow operators, such as WISCO, to dispose of radioactive waste, possibly later this year.
Scott Radig, the health department’s waste management director, predicts that half of the special waste landfill operators in the state will go into the radioactive materials business.
“I’ve just heard talk, nothing official, yet,” said Radig, adding that it’s too early to know for sure because companies can’t apply to modify their permit until the rules are in place.
Another Canadian-based company, Secure Energy Services, operates a special waste landfill north of Williston and three waste-processing sites in the Oil Patch region.
It’s also in the early application stages for a special waste landfill in Dunn County south of Manning.
Secure Energy general manager Kurt Rhea said he sees big obstacles with the health department’s rules, mainly with how radioactivity would be measured.
“If they can’t tell me exactly what’s acceptable, we’re not going to go ahead,” said Rhea, who characterizes the proposed 50 picocuries as a safe number, actually “crazy low.”
Rhea’s company consults with the state department on radioactive issues and is the primary collector of filter socks at hundreds of saltwater disposal wells. The filters concentrate naturally occurring radioactive particles from down-hole geology and are banned from disposal in North Dakota.
Rhea said economics will play a role in which operators get into the radioactive waste landfill business.
The proposed maximum of 25,000 tons per year per landfill is not a big number, especially at a fee of $100 a ton or so, he said.
“That’s what, maybe $2.5 to $3 million, compared to what it costs to construct and other costs?” said Rhea, pointing out that liability and financial assurance insurance would take out a big bite of revenue.
There’s more money to be made processing radioactive waste, as it does at its three plants in the Oil Patch and transporting it elsewhere, according to Rhea.
There are fewer than 20 waste-processing plants in the Bakken, which, on any given day, could have tons of radioactive material onsite being prepped for transport to states with approved landfills for radioactive waste.
For the most part, the tank bottoms and other materials measure between 9 to 35 picocuries, according to Gretchen Anderson, Secure Energy’s regulatory coordinator, so most of it could likely be disposed of in North Dakota under the new rules.
“We are a long ways from making a decision,” said Rhea, adding that it will come down to numbers.
The eight remaining special waste operators were also contacted for this story, but either no one answered or returned messages.
A contentious issue
Darrell Dorgan, spokesman for the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, predicts that where these landfills are permitted will be a contentious issue in western North Dakota for years to come.
“This is developing into the largest issue in western North Dakota - where they go and who gives the approval,” he said.
If a special waste landfill has an existing permit, it’ll be up to the health department to modify the operator’s permit. The department will issue notice, take comments for 30 days, then decide, according to Radig.
Counties had to approve initial zoning, but there is no provision in state rules to restart the local zoning process if the landfill were to apply to handle radioactive waste, he said.
Counties could put that provision in place at the local level, Radig said.
In Mountrail County, zoning administrator Don Longmuir said its zoning rules for special waste were developed years before the health department proposed to add radioactive waste, so it doesn’t have such a provision.
Two landfills are in development now, he said.
“We’re not worried; we’re not sure what the health department is doing at this point. We don’t have the science to determine that. Therefore, we rely on the state,” said Longmuir, explaining that any local discussion about radioactive waste in local landfills would include the zoning board, county commission and state’s attorney.
In Dunn County, residents are facing the prospect of two special waste landfills.
Last week, 150 of them showed up at a county zoning meeting. They convinced the zoning board to reinstate local control, whereby 60 percent of nearby landowners would have to approve of a landfill prior to zoning.
The reinstated 60 percent policy will now go the Dunn County Commission for action before it can become final.
Curt Kralicek of rural Manning would live across the road from the special waste landfill proposed by Secure Energy Services. He spearheaded the move to reinstate local control - a provision removed in July - and said he was impressed with the overwhelming turnout.
“In my mind, it isn’t just the radioactive (possibility), it’s the whole picture. Radioactive waste is a concern, no doubt. There is a real concern about these special waste landfills that I don’t think is specific to any one item,” he said.
Taking a look
Secure Energy took a busload of Dunn County residents to look at its 13 Mile special waste landfill near Williston.
It’s laid out on a quarter-section of former cropland, with two open cells operated in a smaller area. County Commissioner Daryl Dukart said he was impressed by the facility and its management.
Larry Medhurst, who manages Secure Energy operations, said his company is capable of handling special or radioactive waste because of its high standards.
Dukart said the county -with about 2,000 oil wells in production and 15 rigs currently drilling - lives daily with oilfield waste.
“I can’t say we don’t have fear,” said Dukart, adding that the county would rely on health department codes and regulations, but he would like some local control to help ensure good practices.
“We’re the eyes and ears out here. We’re the ones who can help make sure it’s run within parameters given to them,” he said.