Glatt: ND’s waste management evolves to meet needs

Many North Dakotans remember when their farm families or relatives dealt with waste by chucking it into a pit or burning it in a barrel right in the yard. As time went on, we realized that these methods were not an appropriate or safe way to disp...

Many North Dakotans remember when their farm families or relatives dealt with waste by chucking it into a pit or burning it in a barrel right in the yard. As time went on, we realized that these methods were not an appropriate or safe way to dispose of household or farm waste, and regulations were passed to protect the health of the public and the health of the environment.
Regulations to protect public health are constantly evolving and changing as technology improves, as we gain more scientific knowledge of chemistry and hydrology and as we as a society determine how we want to safeguard ourselves and our environment. This evolution has happened throughout our history and will continue into the future, as we strive for waste minimization through smarter recycling efforts, decreased packaging and more biodegradable products.
It is the job of the North Dakota Department of Health to regulate and assure that waste is handled and disposed of in a manner which minimizes public and environmental health impacts. The department permits, regulates and inspects more than 210 inert, 13 municipal, 22 special (oilfield and power plants) and four industrial waste facilities.
Applicants for waste disposal permits must complete a rigorous multi-state agency site location review, detailed evaluation of the site hydrogeology and review of engineered design plans and operational practices. The review requires that applicants plan for groundwater monitoring and give financial assurance to cover closure and 30 year post-closure care and monitoring of the site.
This process has ensured public health protection while minimizing environmental impacts for the past few decades.
As population and development increase across the state, North Dakota has entered into a new age of waste management. The rapid development of the Bakken has brought change in the amounts and types of waste that are being generated within our borders.
As with all change, this change will require adaptation in the way we as a state handle waste. New types of waste, such as Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material, or TENORM, from oil exploration and production activities will require new approaches to management.
TENORM is naturally occurring radioactive material that gets “technologically enhanced,” or concentrated, by an industrial process, such as filtering produced water or the buildup of scale inside of pipes and boilers.
So far, the measurable radioactivity in TENORM generated in North Dakota has been relatively low and is not believed to rise to the level of harming those nearby.
North Dakota currently has the most stringent standard for disposal of TENORM in the country.
Other oil-producing states have less stringent standards, which allow for higher levels of radioactivity in material disposed of in landfill sites. But there is little scientific data on how the standards in other states were determined and what the actual long-term health risks from disposal at higher levels will be.
To fill the gaps in data, the department has contracted with Argonne National Laboratory to do an independent study of the risks to workers and the general public from the generation, transport and disposal of oilfield TENORM.
ANL is a scientific research organization affiliated with the University of Illinois and the U.S. Department of Energy. The North Dakota Department of Health is the sole funder of the study.
The final report from ANL is expected in late summer.
To address the complex issues revolving around oilfield waste, the department is working to implement improvements in the following areas:

  • Ensuring transparent, accurate and timely reporting of all spills statewide.
  • Increasing the ability of field staff to oversee planning, management and follow-up regarding the appropriate cleanup of all spills.
  • Evaluating existing regulations to determine if modifications are needed to address the “cradle-to-grave” tracking of waste and to meet the standards for disposal.

It is important to note that any amendments to waste regulations must be based on applicable scientific evidence and best management practices and must be reviewed by the public before being approved. Changes will continue to occur in waste management practices to meet the state’s new types of waste production. Dealing responsibly with those changes will result in improved regulation of waste, which in turn will result in increased public and environmental health protection.

Glatt is chief of the Environmental Health Section of the North Dakota Department of Health.

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