MCKENZIE COUNTY — Federal and state health officials are investigating leaking trailers loaded with thousands of pounds of potentially radioactive filter socks and debris parked on rural property southwest of Watford City.
A special agent with the Environmental Protection Agency criminal investigations unit is assigned to the case and a radiation control team from the state Health Department was on scene Friday.
Brad Torgerson, with the state Health Department’s waste management division, said the team determined that radiation levels “do not appear to present any public health hazards.” He said the company, RP Services, of Riverton, Wyo., was told to put the waste in proper containers and submit a plan for cleanup.
A formal enforcement action is possible, Torgerson said.
EPA special agent Dan O’Malley contacted state health officials about the waste; when contacted by the Tribune, O’Malley said he could not confirm his agency’s investigation.
The RP Services trailers are parked on property owned by Russ and Mary Williams, whose separate company was involved in an illegal filter sock disposal that led to a $27,000 fine at the McKenzie County landfill operation last summer.
The filter socks are a notorious source of radioactive material because they concentrate naturally occurring radiation from geology down the well hole.
The Health Department says the filters should not be landfilled anywhere in North Dakota and instead, should be handled by certified companies for disposal at hazardous waste sites in other states.
The trailers loaded with the leaking material and filter socks were reported Thursday to McKenzie County landfill director Rick Schreiber.
Schreiber has adopted a tough policy and his is the first landfill in the country to install radiation detection pedestals that monitor every load coming into the landfill.
Filter socks, when found, are subject to a $1,000 fine per sock, amounting to nearly $250,000 in fines to date.
Based on images of the scene, Schreiber said he felt sick and angry and he immediately contacted local, state and federal sources.
“When you can clearly see liquid dripping and running off, there are violations. When they (socks) are that orange color, we know they’re hot,” Schreiber said. “This is the most (filter socks) I’ve ever seen,” he said.
North Dakota regulates any radiation level above
5 picocuries as hazardous.
Schreiber said his operators have tested filter socks “so hot our meters are maxed out” at readings equivalent to 1,000 picocuries.
RP Services spokesman Gil Roden said his company is taking steps to properly dispose of the filter socks.
He said North Dakota’s protocol with filter socks is new to his company and it is taking steps to find proper disposal.
“Now we know how to do it,” Roden said. He said he expects to pay $7,500 per container for disposal.
Schreiber said oil companies know the filter socks are inherently radioactive and are aware of the expense of hauling them to approved sites.
He said the state needs to assess an environmental fee along with well permits and then set up a collection and disposal system that companies participate in.
“This is a multi-pronged problem. This ... is not going to be tolerated. If I have to be the one to stir the stick in the hornet’s nest, fine, so be it,” he said.
The Health Department is awaiting results of a study on radioactive oil field and other waste before deciding whether to raise its allowable limit of radiation and how disposal sites would be constructed.
Because landfills won’t take the socks and levy fines when haulers are caught bringing them in, they sometimes end up in community Dumpsters around towns and roadside ditches.
Jerry Samuelson, McKenzie County’s emergency manager, said the RP Services incident illustrates how oil development stretches local governments.
“What can we do? We don’t know how to deal with this,” Samuelson said.