Gazette opinion: Montana needs radioactive waste rules – Billings Gazette, Sept. 1, 2017

When the Bakken boomed, North Dakota got the bulk of oil development and Montana got most of the radioactive waste. North Dakota prohibited disposal of radioactive filter socks and other radioactive drilling waste. Montana had no rules, so the waste ended up here.

Finally, Montana is moving forward with public health and safety rules specific to radioactive waste from oil and gas drilling. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality proposed rules for disposal of “technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material” or TENORM. This is radioactive material that was in the ground naturally until it was removed and concentrated by the process of drilling or some other human activity.

“TENORM poses a radiation health risk not only from direct radiation exposure, but also from inhalation or ingestion of dust particles associated with the material,” according to the proposed rules.

During the oil boom, radioactive oil waste, including filter socks, was illegally dumped in Montana and in North Dakota. It’s important to have this material disposed of properly.

Ed Thamke, DEQ bureau chief in Helena, said the proposed rules “provide a level of certainty for operators and interested citizens.” The new rules require:

  • The landfill operator to do more reporting, documentation and statistical analysis.
  • Air quality monitoring at the landfill boundaries.
  • Set a maximum level of radioactivity for waste that specially licensed TENORM landfills can accept.
  • Require the licensed landfill to monitor the level of radioactivity in material coming into the landfill and to refuse loads that are over the limit.

Seth Newton, whose family raises cattle near the Dawson County disposal site, has seen material that spilled along roads leading to the dump. Although the area is in drought this summer, just three years ago, it had record-high rain in August. Newton recalls that Deer Creek flooded in 1978. The creek bed is near the landfill, which opened in 2013.

The federal government doesn’t regulate this type of radioactive material, so most states have adopted their own rules as Montana is just now doing.

“We’re glad to see rules in writing,” Newton said. “Northern Plains members and ranchers like myself have been pushing DEQ to do this for years.”

Newton said the proposed rules are a step in the right direction, but some need to go further. He wants DEQ to add a requirement that biannual groundwater testing be conducted by an independent business. The proposed rules would require the landfill operator to obtain the test and report results to DEQ.

The rules ought to require that scientific testing and monitoring be done by a lab approved by DEQ. The public deserves assurance the data is accurate and unbiased.

There have been fewer spills since Newton’s neighbors, the Kubesh family, sued Montana DEQ and won a settlement that ordered all loads coming to the dump be covered to reduce the risk of spills and leaks. Most loads now arrived tarped, Newton said.

Dawson County neighbors’ worries could soon be concerns for other folks in Eastern Montana. DEQ has approved TENORM disposal facility permits for a site north of Culbertson and another south of Outlook. An environmental assessment is being conducted on an application for a facility near Sidney. None of these three sites is under construction yet. Meanwhile, North Dakota changed its law to start permitting disposal facilities, but none have actually opened in that state.

Most of the 253,000 tons of waste hauled to the Oaks Facility over the past four years came from out of state. “Montana continues to be North Dakota’s dumping grounds,” Newton said.

The waste has to go somewhere. Montana must adopt and enforce effective rules to protect public health, safety and neighbors’ property. As Newton said: “This is DEQ’s opportunity to do it right.”