GLENDIVE, Mont. — While North Dakota figures out what to do with radioactive waste from oil production, a Montana operator hopes it doesn't change a thing.
Ross Oakland, owner of Oaks Disposal northwest of Glendive, Mont., is doing pretty good business taking oil field waste from North Dakota, because his operation is handily located at the western edge of Bakken operations, and also because Montana's rules allow his facility to take radioactive waste up to 30 picocuries per gram.
Because Oakland saw an opportunity ripe for the taking, he's now the first operator to take advantage of Montana's new low-level radioactive waste program.
"I researched and got going because nobody else was able to take it. I've got a $5 million investment here. I didn't skimp on anything," he said.
His operation is on 126 acres of land he owns in the dry farm and range country west of the Yellowstone River, where neighbors are scattered along a grid of gravel roads leading to the site.
One of the site's closest neighbors is Don Lewis, a third-generation rancher whose family has been on the land for more than 100 years.
Lewis isn't concerned about the radioactive waste site a mile from his place.
"Ah hell, there's government inspectors going by here all the time and if there was a problem, they'd find it. What's to worry about? It's all inspected," he said.
He said the water collection system at the disposal site takes care of any runoff and said he personally talked to the outfit that drilled the four monitoring wells that are used to test the groundwater.
"They told me it's a long way down to any water," Lewis said. "I don't go up there and bother him (Oakland), as long as he sticks by his word."
Montana has only allowed the disposal of low-level radioactive waste for 18 months. So far, Oaks Disposal is the only licensed operator in that program, though a couple of other applications are in the works, said Rick Thompson, supervisor of the solid waste section for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
One waste operator, Dual Trucking, opened up a processing facility near Bainville, Mont., without a license.
Montana is taking enforcement action against the company in part because it accepted filter socks and should have transported them to a certified location, communications director Chris Saeger said.
Thompson said Montana made the change after researching with other oil and gas states and the oil industry here and in Canada.
It set 30 picocuries as the upper limit because it's a safe exposure for landfill workers over a year's time, Thompson said.
The sites are required to meet construction standards with a deep clay base, impermeable liners, a leachate system to siphon water from the cells into holding dams, and gravel before being capped off.
There also is a series of four monitoring wells 150 feet deep at compass corners.
Oakland said he and the disposal site staff are diligent about what goes into the disposal cells. Access to the facility is through a locked gate, a fence and past security cameras.
Every load that comes in is Geiger-metered and weighed and must be accompanied by paperwork that documents where it came from, the well location and owner and the transportation company that delivered it.
Oaks Disposal has two radioactive parameters it has to meet: One is how much radioactivity any material emits not to exceed 15 uR per hour, or twice what's called background; the other is formulated in picocuries, which measures volume.
Most companies provide their own radioactive analysis of the load and the on-site metering is a second backup.
In addition, the drill cutting waste is stockpiled and every 300 tons are randomly sampled for a laboratory analysis for radioactivity, hydrocarbons and metals before it's dozed into the pit.
Oakland said most of the waste is drill cuttings from operators that don’t want to or can't bury it on the well site.
"It costs me about $750 per well to test their cuttings. I've never found one over 5 pCi," he said.
Larry Aiken, a driver for JMAC Resources, brought in a load of drilling waste from the Indian Hills disposal facility in North Dakota, where it was sorted off after being tested.
"If it can't be disposed of in North Dakota, we'd take it to Idaho or Colorado. Since Oaks opened up, we haven't had to go there," Aiken said.
Oakland said he will accept filter socks if the operator calls ahead and the waste is already analyzed.
Thompson said the facility is subject to inspections and an annual renewal of its license.
He said Montana's level for disposal is right for the state.
"Where we are now is high enough to be suitable to meet the needs," he said.
Oakland said he'd like to be busier than he is, which is why he's not eager for North Dakota to enter into the radioactive waste business, as it's currently considering.
"It's an exciting business. I love it because I know it's safe. I'm not going to jeopardize my family or anyone around here. When this is all done, it will be a grass hill up here," he said.