Submit a Comment to DEQ on Radioactive Oil Waste Rules

Please submit a comment letter to the DEQ regarding radioactive oil waste rules by October 20, 2019. Feel free to personalize your letter in whatever way seems appropriate to you. Thank you! (More information on this issue found  below the comment form.)

Please submit your comment, fill in fields, and hit “submit.” (NOTE: Radioactive oil waste is formally referred to as TENORM which stands for “Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material.”)

  • For greater impact, please feel free to customize this letter.

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LEARN MORE ABOUT RADIOACTIVE OIL WASTE RULES

Eastern Montanan is not North Dakota’s dumping grounds. We need  radioactive oil waste rules in Montana that are as strong as North Dakota’s.

On August 23, 2019, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) proposed a new draft of rules to regulate radioactive oilfield waste, a new and growing waste stream in the state. The rule’s comment period closes October 21, 2019.

The DEQ is holding two public hearings on the draft rules: Tuesday, September 24 at 6 PM in Glendive and Thursday, October 10 at 9 AM in Helena. Contact Caitlin at caitlin@northernplains.org if you’d like to attend one of the hearings.

Waste from oil and gas development is exempt from federal regulation under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Strong radioactive oilfield waste rules would fill that key regulatory gap, and would put Montana in lockstep with other states that have chosen to regulate the waste stream, like North Dakota, Ohio, and Louisiana.

Why Radioactive Oilfield Waste?

As the Bakken boomed, industrial waste volumes in North Dakota swelled alongside it. In 2001, North Dakota’s landfills accepted nearly 10,000 tons of waste from the oilfields. In 2013, they accepted nearly 1.8 million tons. However, those numbers don’t include one toxic category of oilfield waste—North Dakota’s radioactive oilfield waste, which at the time remained untracked.

Why radioactive? Many of the waste byproducts produced during the oil and gas extraction and production process are radioactive. They contain varying concentrations of naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM), or technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials (TENORM), which originate deep in the earth and can be mobilized upwards by the liquids involved in the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process. Oilfield waste materials also contain other constituents of concern, like benzene, a known carcinogen.

Until 2016, North Dakota prohibited the disposal of any waste with a radioactivity rate higher than 5 picocuries per gram. In 2016, North Dakota raised that radioactivity limit, and ratified state rules that address and oversee the disposal and management of radioactive oilfield waste. Despite that change, North Dakota has yet to permit any facilities to accept this particular waste material.

 Radioactive Oilfield Waste in Montana

Montana is home to one radioactive oil waste landfill, Oaks Disposal, located 26 miles northwest of Glendive. The facility opened in 2013. Because North Dakota still has no landfills permitted to accept radioactive oil waste, Oaks Disposal is the only landfill that can accept this waste in both North Dakota and Montana. The vast majority of the waste they accept is from North Dakota.

The Montana DEQ has licensed three additional sites to accept radioactive oilfield waste in the state, one north of Culbertson, one near Plentywood, and Missoula’s Republic Services. The landfills in Culbertson and  Plentywood have not been constructed yet. The DEQ placed a permit application for a fourth landfill, proposed near Sidney, on hold.

What the Rules Do

 Because oil and gas industry wastes are exempt from federal regulation under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, these rules fill a major regulatory gap. Until now, radioactive oil waste in Montana was subject only to the regular solid waste rules, which were not written to deal with this new and unique type of waste.

Some strengths of the latest draft of rules include:

  • Groundwater is required to be tested by an independent party, per the request of Northern Plains members like you!
  • Landfills must have appropriate flood readiness by building run-on, run-off control systems to 100-year flood levels, not just 25-year flood levels. Again, this is the direct result of organizing and public comments by Northern Plains members like you.
  • Landfills may not accept or dispose of bulk liquids.
  • Landfills have to monitor the air at their perimeters for radioactivity.
  • DEQ has to be notified when a load is rejected by a landfill. Note, we would like to see a requirement that DEQ follows up with the transporter of a rejected load and helps guide them to a legal disposal option.
  • Landfills are required to do gate screening of loads.

Ways to Improve the Rules

The draft rules also leave dramatic gaps. Local landowners remain concerned about the increased limit for radioactivity and the potential contamination of ground or surface water supplies, and seek revisions that would more thoroughly and appropriately protect surrounding waters. Selected revisions are listed below.

  • Keep our radioactivity limit the same as North Dakota’s. DEQ is proposing to quadruple the radioactivity limit at the gate of landfills from 50 picocuries per gram to 200 picocuries per gram. DEQ is proposing this despite requiring landfills maintain an average radioactivity concentration of 50 within the landfill. The discrepancy between these numbers does not make sense. DEQ is also proposing to double the exposure level allowed in the landfill to 200 microroentgen. Our radioactivity limits should remain the same as our neighboring North Dakota. Otherwise, Montana will remain a dumping ground for the waste that the oil industry cannot get rid of across the border.
  • Require immediate and meaningful action in the case of contamination. If anything goes wrong, landfills should have to tell the DEQ immediately, tell neighboring landowners immediately, and stop accepting waste until contamination is addressed. This is a requirement in North Dakota.
  • Require DEQ to conduct their own environmental monitoring at these landfills. With the exception of groundwater monitoring, all environmental monitoring at radioactive oil waste landfills is conducted by the landfill itself. DEQ should do its job and take actual samples during inspections. Landfills should not be trusted to police themselves with self-reporting.
  • Require landfills to test storm water for radioactivity, and to line storm water ponds. All storm water retention ponds should be lined to prevent leaking. Additionally, storm water should be monitored for radioactivity, and corrective action should be taken if detection indicates that storm water is found to be at higher concentrations.
  • Require landfills to manage leachate better. Currently, the rules allow facilities to simply recirculate leachate by sprinkling it back onto the top of the waste. This is not sufficient. There needs to be a plan in place for excess leachate that collects on the liner; i.e., when a foot or more of leachate accumulates. That much liquid is very heavy, and puts undue strain on the liner. The rules should include a requirement for removal, treatment, and disposal of leachate if conditions threaten the integrity of the liner. The rules should also specify how frequently leachate should be tested, what it should be tested for, and by whom.
  • Require safe placement of metal waste. The new rules allow for the acceptance of “contaminated equipment,” like metals or used pipe. Sharp corners can puncture the liner, while the added weight of metal alone can put undue weight on it. DEQ should specify what procedures landfills have to do in order to protect the liner from bulky or sharp metal items.
  • Require the landfill to use liners that are as protective as North Dakota’s. North Dakota requires much thicker and more stringent liners than those required in Montana. North Dakota requires a 60-mil synthetic liner and at least 3 feet of clay with a hydraulic conductivity of no more than 107 cm/sec. The proposed radioactive oil waste rules are mute on this topic, and rely only on the existing regulations, which require a liner half as thick and only 2 feet of “compacted soil,” not clay. Compacted soil is a very generalized description that is not the same as compacted clay. Compacted clay has intrinsic attenuative capacities that general soil does not. The rules should require compacted clay and a liner as thick as North Dakota’s.
  • Define drill cuttings and drilling mud as radioactive oil waste (TENORM). Drill cuttings and mud are excluded from the definition of TENORM, despite large volumes of this waste still being delivered to and received by TENORM landfills. The functional outcome of this is that drill cuttings and mud won’t have to be tested for contaminants in the same way TENORM will be. Drill cuttings may be lower in radioactivity, but they are far from benign. They should not be exempted from the definition and thus exempt from the waste characterization criteria.
  • Require inspections to be unannounced. Currently, inspections are not required to be unannounced. This is unacceptable. A requirement should be written into the radioactive oil waste rules that specifically requests inspections be unannounced.

How to comment

Comments are due by 5:00 PM on Monday, October 21, 2019.
Comments can be submitted via the form above, emailed directly to sscherer@mt.gov, or mailed to:

Sandy Scherer, Legal Secretary
Department of Environmental Quality
1520 E. Sixth Avenue
PO Box 200901
Helena, MT 59620

Questions?
Have questions about any of the above? Want more information on how to participate? Contact Caitlin at caitlin@northernplains.org or (406) 248-1154