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Out-of-state shipping of radioactive waste declines

BISMARCK -- A Glendive, Montana, radioactive waste landfill operator thinks some "bad actors" in the oil fields are illegally disposing of radioactive waste and hiding it in North Dakota landfills and that it may be too late for the environment.

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Oaks Disposal near Glendive, Mont., opened a second cell and placed the required liner. The facility is licensed for up to 50 picocuries of radioactive waste and is the only of its kind in Montana and North Dakota. (Submitted)

BISMARCK -- A Glendive, Montana, radioactive waste landfill operator thinks some “bad actors” in the oil fields are illegally disposing of radioactive waste and hiding it in North Dakota landfills and that it may be too late for the environment.

Gary Ebel, who owns Buckhorn Energy and operates Oaks Disposal, fears that what North Dakota is doing now under its new radioactive waste program that started Jan. 1 may be too late for the environment.

Ebel said that as soon as North Dakota started talking about permitting radioactive waste landfills he noticed a drop in the amount of treatment plant waste going out of state to certified-radioactive landfills, such as his own.

His company, which is regulated by Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality and recently upgraded its landfill to handle higher levels of radioactive material,  pulled the Oil and Gas Division’s available reports for treatment plants and created a bar graph to define the disposal trend.

Ebel said the results were startling: Despite the amount of total waste remaining relatively stable, the amount transported to radioactive-certified facilities dropped from a high of 71 percent in August 2014 to 25 percent in July.

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“The volume hasn’t changed all that much, so the question is, where did it end up going? If it’s not going out of state, it’s been turned back in state,” Ebel said.

Slowed drilling isn’t an explanation, either, he said. Much of the waste handled by treatment plants is generated by production of oil, meaning it tends mostly to be sludge from storage tank bottoms.

The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources reported last week that oil production, despite a low rig count, was slightly up during the month of November.

This treated sludge has been studied by Argonne National Laboratories, which wrote the report that led to the state’s new radioactive waste disposal program. In the 2014 report, the sludge was found to contain an average of 75 pCi of radiation, with a low of 3 pCi and a maximum of 1,300 pCi.

Ebel said the data is especially troubling because some treatment plant operators show they’ve never sent any waste to radioactive-certified landfills.

He suspects some “bad actors” are skirting the rules and hiding radioactive waste in North Dakota landfills, possibly by illegally blending it to bring down the radioactive reading.

The problem is that treatment operators get a permit from the Oil and Gas Division and report activity on a form that doesn’t distinguish whether the solid waste is radioactive or not, only where it goes for disposal.

State health officials says they are working to close a wide gap in the reporting of potentially radioactive waste disposal from North Dakota’s oil production -- and what is happening to it has been difficult to track.

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As much as 100,000 tons a year has existed in reporting limbo from when total waste generated is recorded by the Oil and Gas Division and when the State Health Department records how much radioactive waste is shipped to specialized landfills out of state.

Those new Jan. 1 regulations are expected to bring order to the situation.

Ebel said the waste from North Dakota has declined significantly, by more than half.  However, it‘s been difficult to track, according to state officials - especially because the amount produced has not been monitored for radioactivity.

"NDIC (Oil and Gas Division) does not regulate TENORM and will not regulate TENORM even with the new rules being put in place," spokeswoman Alison Ritter said of the technically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials.

As a result, the health department’s radiation control licensing program collects truck manifests to track how much radioactive waste goes out the back door, without any way of knowing what went through the front door in the first place.

The waste, which is generated by 16 treatment plants that handle sludge from oil storage tanks, drilling mud and contaminated soil, is transported to out-of-state radioactive certified landfills.

Scott Radig, who manages the health department’s waste program, said that era of the right hand not working with the left should end now that the state has new rules for handling radioactive waste.

Radioactive waste, measuring up to 50 picocuries, may be deposited in specialized landfills in North Dakota - though no operator in North Dakota has yet applied for a permit.

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Until a certified-radioactive landfill is permitted, the old protocol still stands: Nothing higher than 5 pCi can legally be disposed of anywhere in North Dakota.

Radig said a team last week began inspecting treatment facilities to find out where treatment plant waste has been going.

“Starting now, it’s very clear that records do need to be kept, where the waste was generated and where it’s disposed,” along with analytical information that confirms the waste was tested for radioactive content, Radig said.

Darrell Dorgan, spokesman for the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, said he's "amazed and pleased" the health department is working to get a handle on the waste, but remains skeptical of its ability to regulate at the 50 pCi level.

"They don't have any idea where it is now, and it's only going to get worse," Dorgan said.

Kurt Rhea is general manager of Secure Energy Services, which operates both treatment and a special waste landfill north of Williston, reports  that for every ton it takes to its own permitted landfill for non-radioactive waste, it ships 2 to 3 tons to radioactive-certified landfills.

“If 100 percent of the waste never goes out of state (from some treatment plants), then I don’t know what’s going on or if they’re purposely not complying,” Rhea said.

His company screens every load that comes in for radioactivity and tracks by volume what is transported out of state or remains here, according to Rhea, who noted most companies act within the law.

Jeff Burrier, engineering vice president for E360, which operates treatment at the Prairie Disposal landfill near Tioga, is one treatment operator with no record of out-of-state disposal. Burrier said his company deals primarily with stabilized drill cuttings, not sludge, acceptable within its disposal permit. Potentially radioactive filter socks are sent away, he said.

Ebel said he sent his findings to the health department and other state officials.

Radig said he can’t verify the findings because, until recently, he’d never seen the Oil and Gas reports that Ebel used to clock the disposal trends. It did, however, partly spur last week’s inspections, but also raised the question of whether Ebel is being self-serving and trying to create more business for himself, Radig said.

The health department will continue its inspections, look at records and conduct some sampling, even as it begins developing reporting forms for treatment waste, according to Radig, who also said he can’t speculate on what would happen if the department verifies Ebel’s concern that radioactive waste is hiding in North Dakota landfills.

Ebel said his company invested hours and expense to show potential disposal issues with radioactive waste. He said it points to the need for the health department to slow down before permitting a radioactive-certified landfill, since it has so little information about the waste already generated even as it plans to ratchet up allowable waste to 50 pCi.

“They need the systems in place to protect the environment. It could take a year to develop all that,” he said.

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