MANNING - Glen Houghton, a Dunn County rancher, walked onto a portion of his land Friday and pointed to patches of bare clay on the ground.
“Nothing ever grows on those spots,” Houghton said. “It’s very poor quality property.”
The presence of clay is one of a few factors that makes the 160-acre patch of Houghton’s land suitable for a proposed industrial landfill, which is generating controversy among Dunn County residents and is due to be voted on Wednesday by county commissioners.
Big Sky Environmental LLC, a subsidiary of Georgia-based developer and waste management company Green Group Holdings, is proposing the landfill. The land in question is a square plot that lies off the southern edge of Fifth Street Southwest, about 10 miles southwest of Grassy Butte.
The landfill itself would encompass about 40 acres and would take in soil wastes generated from energy exploration and production, materials cleaned up from industrial spills, and inert wastes like metal, wood and masonry.
Big Sky plans to line the pit with seven-foot thick protective material, including three feet of low-permeability clay and two layers of high-density polyethylene. It also calls for radiation detectors to scan for any naturally occuring radioactive waste trucked in that exceeds state limits. The site has already been approved by the North Dakota Department of Health as suitable for a proposed industrial landfill.
Big Sky representatives Oscar Allen and Levi Andrus made the proposal before the Dunn County Planning and Zoning Board at a special hearing on April 14. After they explained the details of the landfill, a number of residents voiced their concerns about the proposal. The board members voted 4-3 to make a recommendation for the county commissioners to deny the permit.
The proposal further brings into focus a controversy that became apparent in the county
last month. It began when the Dunn County commissioners voted last year to scrap a rule that permitted such a site to be installed only through the consent of 60 percent of the residents who live within a half-mile of the property. There is now a committee attempting to reinstate that rule, though county officials are determining if the rule is legal.
Monte Schmalz, a farmer who lives near Grassy Butte, owns land near the proposed site and was one of those attending the hearing in opposition to the landfill. He is unconvinced of Big Sky’s claims that the landfill won’t affect the land surrounding it.
“It’s controversial as hell,” he said of the proposal.
Schmalz has a list of grievances against the landfill, chief which is the environmental impact the facility could potentially have.
He said the site sits next to the headwaters of the Little Knife River. That drains into the Knife River, which feeds into the Missouri River. There are also numerous springs in the area, he said.
If there was runoff from the landfill that entered the tributary, Schmalz said, “it could spread for miles and miles and miles.”
Schmalz said he’s also afraid any possible contamination could eventually make its way onto land he farms near the site.
Houghton, on Friday, pointed out the Little Knife River, which was barely flowing. He said it only really moves in the spring when the snow melts.
“There’s literally oil wells up and down this river on both sides,” he said.
Allen said the industrial history of the land, along with its geological qualities and its removal from public view drew Big Sky to the site.
“It’s not a pristine tract,” he said.
The land, Houghton said, has already experienced heavy industrialization. Oil wells dot the area, including some from the ’70s and ’80s oil boom. Two pipelines are beneath the land and there are power lines spanning over it. There’s also a saltwater disposal station nearby.
Because of all this, Houghton said, he didn’t expect there to be much outcry when he agreed to sell the land to Big Sky.
“It took me by surprise that it was so controversial,” he said.
Schmalz said he’s concerned about air quality, as his land is directly downwind from the proposed site. He’s afraid odors will constantly drift from the landfill to where he is. He is also afraid his property value will plummet.
Schmalz and other locals have fears the landfill could become a radioactive hazard. Despite North Dakota laws prohibiting the storage of radioactive waste exceeding five picocuries, there are movements in the state to raise the limit to 50 picocuries, or 10 times the current standard.
Schmalz is afraid this could pave the way for North Dakota’s industrial landfills to start accepting filter socks, which filter out radioactive isotopes from water used in hydraulic fracturing. Filter socks have to be disposed of in out-of-state landfills.
However, officials have found filter socks dumped illegally in areas across the state, including several found in March 2014 at an abandoned gas station in Noonan.
Though the landfill would not be allowed to accept filter socks as it stands, Schmalz said he is concerned Big Sky might eventually obtain a permit to do so should the laws change. He is also worried that the landfill could be abandoned by the company and left open. The company could then dissolve, he said, leaving no one liable for the site.
Houghton said Big Sky approached him out of the blue with their proposal, and he initially refused. But he reconsidered as they discussed the proposal further. He said he did “months of research” on the company before deciding to accept.
“It’s going to be financially beneficial to me and my family,” Houghton said of the amount of money he was offered for the land if the proposal is approved.
Houghton said he knows the concerns the community has about the proposal, but thinks many of those opposed are misinformed about what the landfill entails. He felt assured by Big Sky’s explanation of how the space would be utilized and monitored.
“I think they have it covered,” he said.
Lance Loken, an environmental consultant from Western Plains Consulting Inc. who Schmalz had contracted for testing soil, said he found possible deficiencies in the soils of the property, detracting from the site’s suitability.
Schmalz said he was disgusted that anyone in the area would agree to sell land for a landfill, though he acknowledged the monetary incentive. He said a waste management company approached him a couple of years ago regarding purchasing land for landfill development. The land, he said, was two miles away from the site now being considered.
Schmalz said no, and “that’s where it ended.”
“I would never do this to my neighbors,” he said.
Schmalz said he thinks it’s inevitable that something will go wrong with the landfill.
“This thing here is going to be here forever and ever and ever,” he said. “It’s gonna happen.”
Allen said Big Sky offers “host agreement” contracts to communities it does business in, where a legal document lets community members draft what a landfill will accept and what liability falls on the company. This can include property value protection, though Allen said he has never seen conclusive evidence that landfills deplete property value.
He said the landfill would have no intention of accepting filter socks, as residents fear. If state law changes to where that becomes possible, Allen said that can be straightened out beforehand in the host agreement.
By state law, he said, Big Sky would have to give financial assurance to the county for site closure in the future and post-closure care.
Oilfield waste in western North Dakota “is going to be generated” no matter what, Allen said. The question he asks is, what will be done about it?
Wernette is a reporter for The Dickisnon Press. Contact him at 701-456-1211.