WATFORD CITY -- Officials are investigating potentially radioactive material and looking into penalties against the company responsible for flatbed trailers stockpiled with filter socks near Watford City.
The trailers are a few miles southwest of the city on private rural property and are the responsibility of Riverton, Wyo.-based RP Services. The North Dakota Department of Health said radiation levels at the site Friday did not appear to present any public health hazards.
A “concerned landowner that lives very, very, very close” to the site emailed Rick Schreiber, director of the county’s solid waste department, about the trailers late Wednesday, he said.
A message left at RP Services’ after-hours line was not returned Saturday.
The state health department had investigators on-site Thursday and Friday, and its immediate recommendation to RP Services was to “properly containerize” the filter socks and oily surface soils at the site with a lined and covered roll-off container, McKenzie County Commission Chair Ron Anderson said. The company also must submit a plan for cleanup and proper disposal.
Filter socks often contain “naturally occurring radioactive material,” which is brought to the surface with drilling or other oil activities.
County officials say the company knew better.
“When you have two flatbed trailers that are completely jam-packed full of them and they're out in the country, there is no doubt in my mind” the company didn’t know what it was doing, Schreiber said.
Ultimately, the socks are supposed to be sent to a proper hazardous waste facility in Colorado.
“It’s a prohibited waste,” Schreiber said. “I don’t really care if you had unicorns and lollipops in it, it’s still against the regulations.”
Companies have tried to sneak the socks into landfills to avoid the proper disposal process, which led Schreiber to install a high-tech radiation detector in his facility.
Companies are fined $1,000 for each improperly disposed of sock.
“We’ve dealt with them quite often,” Anderson said. “They try to sneak them into our landfill and then we fine them.”
But officials say more solutions are needed.
The incident is a glaring example of a problem oil counties have dealt with for a while, and McKenzie County officials are recommending solutions like contracting out disposal services and requiring companies to pay a permit fee up front.
“It costs money obviously to dispose of these things, so I think if these companies had a permit up front, that would provide a solution,” McKenzie County emergency manager Jerry Samuelson said. “Therefore, if they already paid for a permit, they would bring them to a site and dispose of them properly.”
Samuelson said he has picked up the socks on the side of the road.
Anderson said he has been working with the North Dakota Industrial Commission to find a better way to prevent the improper disposal, like up-front permitting.
Schreiber said he has brought up the filter sock issue ever since he joined the county a year-and-a-half ago, and has also brought his concerns to the state level.
He suggested the state charge an “environmental fee” for every well being drilled and use the revenue to have a contract with a hazardous waste company that goes to rig sites to pick up the trash and properly dispose of it.
“You put the burden on the people who are coming here, you know, trying to put radioactive waste in our landfills, stockpiling filter socks out in the middle of McKenzie County hoping that no one finds it,” Schreiber said.
Anderson said either the state or the county will pursue fines and criminal action against RP Services.
Schreiber’s angry about the incident, and said it’s an example of what gives the Oil Patch its reputation.
“It’s stuff like this that give the Oil Patch a bad name, but it’s people that come here from other places that are doing stupid, ignorant stuff.”
In an email to county officials Friday morning, Anderson was stern.
“We can not put up with this. I have impressed this problem to the industrial commission for some time. They are working on it, but the wheels turn slowly,” he wrote.
“Bring the world down on these people.”