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Montana, North Dakota lawmakers to collaborate on radioactive oilfield waste problem

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Filter socks

North Dakota officials investigated these trailers in 2014, which were leaking fluids and contained an unknown number of potentially radioactive filter socks.

The debate over how to dispose of the Bakken’s radioactive oilfield waste has prompted a small group of lawmakers from North Dakota and Montana to start collaborating.

The conversations come as Montana prepares to enact a formal rule capping the radiation level of oilfield waste disposed of at landfills in the state. Much of the waste comes from North Dakota, where several projects are in the works to inject the material underground for permanent storage in McKenzie County. North Dakota has no disposal facilities.

“I felt that we needed to actually shake hands with North Dakota as legislators and ensure that both sides were looking at the same exact issues,” said Rep. Steve Gunderson, a Republican from Libby, Mont.

He said communication among lawmakers on the issue “should have been opened up years ago.” He and several other Montana legislators, including at least one Democrat, plan to set up a video call soon with a few North Dakota lawmakers. They hope to keep the dialogue going and share ideas.

Gunderson has been coordinating with North Dakota Sen. Dale Patten, who has followed recent developments regarding radioactive waste in Montana. Just one landfill there accepts the waste, although several others have received authorization to do so.

Montana has guidelines in place limiting the level of radiation to 50 picocuries per gram for waste at the facilities, and it’s in the process of adopting that limit into a formal rule likely to take effect in July, said Montana Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Moira Davin.

Several people involved in the oil industry and environmental regulation in North Dakota say that the bulk of the state's radioactive waste falls below that limit and would not be rejected under Montana’s proposed regulations. Montana’s 50-picocurie cap matches a limit set by North Dakota regulators several years ago.

A panel of Montana lawmakers, including Gunderson, pushed to allow individual loads of waste with a radiation level up to 200 picocuries per gram so long as the rolling average at landfills stayed below 50 picocuries per gram.

Gunderson said he’s concerned that if Montana enacts too tough a limit, disposing of radioactive oilfield waste could become even more expensive as the material would have to be trucked to disposal sites in states farther away, and that could lead to illegal dumping.

Environmentalists and some landowners pushed back on the idea of allowing flexibility up to 200 picocuries per gram, and that option is no longer on the table. The state has said that because there is no standardized way to calculate the average, it would be difficult to enforce compliance.

Patten, a Republican from Watford City, has watched as Montanans grapple with their role taking in North Dakota’s waste.

“Most people out there would say, ‘Yeah, why are we?’ and I can understand that,” he said. “We should be able to handle it in some manner here.”

North Dakota searches for solutions

Efforts are underway to address the issue in North Dakota, where proposed disposal projects frequently receive pushback from neighbors fearful about their safety if they were to live in close proximity to such a site.

The latest high-profile debate came late last year over a Secure Energy Services landfill north of Williston that takes in oilfield waste. The company sought permits from the state and local officials to start accepting radioactive waste, which is known in the oil patch as “technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material” or TENORM.

Low levels of radiation occur naturally in soil, water and rocks. When those materials are removed from the ground, like in oil and gas production, radiation can become concentrated in filter socks used to strain oilfield fluids, sludge at the bottom of storage tanks and scale that forms in well pipes, according to the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality.

Williams County denied Secure Energy’s request and issued a yearlong moratorium on applications for disposal sites. The controversy in part prompted the Western Dakota Energy Association to commission a study on radioactive waste to help county leaders across the Bakken figure out how to respond to applications. That study is slated to wrap up at the end of July, said Brent Bogar, senior consultant with the firm AE2S Nexus.

Meanwhile, companies continue to put forward disposal projects in North Dakota.

“It’s a problem that just needs a solution,” said Keith Norbeck, vice president of KT Enterprises. 

Rather than dispose of radioactive waste by burying it several feet deep in a landfill, his company is pursuing another idea that has been proposed in North Dakota before but has never come to fruition.

KT Enterprises wants to inject the waste back underground at a site east of Watford City near Johnsons Corner. The facility would accept oilfield waste, including radioactive material, grind it up into small particles and blend it with saltwater, another byproduct of oil and gas production. Saltwater is typically injected back underground for permanent storage, and so would the slurry of waste and brine at the proposed location.

KT Enterprises, which already operates saltwater disposal sites in North Dakota, would inject the slurry 7,500 feet deep down a well into the Minnelusa and Amsden rock formations.

Norbeck said the slurry injection process would solve “some of the problem” of disposing of the Bakken’s waste. It could handle tank sludge, for example, but not other types of radioactive waste such as filter socks, which would still need to be disposed of at a different facility such as a landfill.

Waste Management of North Dakota is proposing a second slurry injection site with two wells to the northeast of the KT Enterprises location.

Norbeck said he anticipates the two facilities could handle most of the market for radioactive waste in the Bakken.

The Waste Management proposal has drawn concerns from nearby landowners, with 26 residents signing onto a letter submitted to the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division, one of the agencies involved in the permitting process.

“We now have too many trucks, noise, and very bad odor problems that cause health issues,” said the landowners, who asked that the state not allow another facility in the area.

They worry the slurry injection site could exacerbate those issues, particularly when the wind blows airborne chemicals their way.

Waste Management spokeswoman Julie Ketchum said the material coming in is essentially odorless, but the company has taken steps to address residents’ concerns.

“These measures include moving most of the activity on-site indoors and installing charcoal filters to mitigate odors,” she said.

The facility would inject the slurry a little more than 5,000 feet underground into the Dakota Group rock formation, she said.

Goodnight Midstream operates a saltwater disposal well nearby and had expressed concerns about the proximity of the sites, but State Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms said at a recent Industrial Commission meeting that his staff does not believe the concerns are warranted.

Waste Management previously proposed a slurry well project in McKenzie County north of Watford City but later withdrew the project. Another slurry well project put forward by a company called Hydroil Solutions also has yet to materialize in the county. The company said last year that it withdrew its application for a radioactive materials license from Environmental Quality because it needed time to complete other plans and permitting steps.

Both the KT Enterprises and Waste Management projects sit before Environmental Quality, which is accepting comments on their applications for a radioactive materials license. Each company has prepared a proposal outlining steps meant to handle radioactive material safely.

The sites also need to secure additional permits under the North Dakota Industrial Commission to drill the slurry wells, and they may need to acquire some local approvals, said Katie Haarsager, a spokeswoman for the Oil and Gas Division. The companies both have received orders from the Industrial Commission approving the spacing of the wells.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or


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