Police and state health officials are investigating the illegal dumping of radioactive filter socks in an abandoned gas station in the tiny remote town of Noonan in Divide County.
“This is a vacant building filled with toxic waste,” said Divide County Sheriff’s Deputy Zach Schroeder, lead investigator, who says the building’s apparent owner is a fugitive on felony larceny charges in Wyoming and so far not traceable.
The building’s contents were reported two weeks ago to Divide County Emergency Manager Jody Gunlock, who said the situation was turned over to the state Health Department and Divide County law enforcement.
Health Department waste division manager Scott Radig said the building contains at least twice as much filter sock material and is more than twice as radioactive as the open trailers loaded with the socks discovered near Watford City three weeks ago.
Schroeder said six separate rooms in the old Mobil gas station contain industrial-sized black garbage bags of filter socks. He estimates at least 200 bags or more are piled into the dirt-floor structure’s warren of rooms.
Schroeder said he’s trying to track down the building owner so the state can jointly develop a cleanup plan. He said county records show Ken Ward, or his wife, own the building as of January 2012, though property taxes for the year were paid by his mother, Edie Ward, who sells real estate in Montana. He said Ken Ward, who escaped police custody, is nowhere to be found.
From records in the building, Schroeder said he has identified a filter sock supply company, Acceleration Production of Watford City, and hopes that will help identify the oil field service company that used them in oil field operations and ditched them in the building.
He said residents of Noonan, population 120, don’t have information and said it’s likely that whoever dumped the garbage bags did so under cover of darkness.
In the meantime, Gunlock said the building may be fenced off to prevent anyone from entering the property and the deputy said he planned to surround it with crime scene tape. Gunlock said the bags were dust-covered and may have been there for some time, though it’s hard to tell how long.
“I don’t think this was ignorance, just deliberate,” Gunlock said.
Gunlock said tests done last week on the material show it is low-level radium that emits “big weak” particles that don’t penetrate skin, but would be hazardous to inhale or ingest.
“It’s a pretty big mess,” Gunlock said.
Radig said tests of the Noonan material show it’s at five times background rate of naturally occurring radiation. The Watford City material was around two times background.
He said the people of Noonan are not at risk as long as the building is secure. The building has broken windows and old unsecured doors.
Socks used to filter oil production fluids are banned from disposal in North Dakota because they concentrate naturally-occurring radiation.
The Health Department is developing rules for tracking radioactive waste because of dumping incidents like this and because hundreds of them show up at oil patch landfills, where truckers are fined if the socks are found in a load.
Radig estimates oil production results in 27 tons of the filter socks daily.
He said the department will try to work with the Noonan property owner on clean up and disposal. Barring that, the state may have to tap the Industrial Commission’s cleanup funds for abandoned well sites.
“The health department has no cleanup fund,” Radig said.