Officials in oil patch counties hope a study on radioactive waste will offer guidance on how to handle applications from companies seeking to store the material in landfills.
The study commissioned by the Western Dakota Energy Association comes after Williams County in December denied a request from Secure Energy Services to begin disposing of the waste at the company's landfill north of Williston.
The process of reviewing that application prompted a lot of questions from the public and among county officials, including Williams County Commissioner David Montgomery.
“My concern was once we open that window of opportunity, if we did for one facility, how many more are we going to get?” he said. “If we approve one, it’s pretty hard to deny any more.”
The study seeks to collect and consolidate a significant amount of information from the state, counties and the oil and gas industry about radioactive waste to try to answer officials’ questions and help them plan, said Brent Bogar, senior consultant with the firm AE2S Nexus. He will conduct the study over the next few months and anticipates finishing it this summer.
“What I’m trying to do is help the counties gather this information and put it into a format that is understandable for them and for them to share with their constituents, the public,” he said.
He said the word “radioactive” can make the hair on a person’s neck stand up, and there are a lot of myths about the waste. He hopes the study can dispel some of them and serve counties as a check on companies’ claims when they apply to store the material in North Dakota.
No landfills have been permitted to accept radioactive oilfield waste in North Dakota under new limits the state set four years ago increasing the level of acceptable radiation. The rules allow facilities to take in material with a radiation level up to 50 picocuries per gram, but they must receive certain state and local approvals first.
Due to the lack of local disposal sites, trucks haul about 100,000 tons per year of the waste to landfills in other states, according to the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality.
The radioactive waste, known as technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material or TENORM, is formed when radiation from soil, water and rocks becomes concentrated in filter socks, sludge or scale amid oil production.
The landfill north of Williston sought to handle up to 25,000 tons of the waste annually. Montgomery anticipates the state would need as many as four other similarly sized facilities to accommodate all of the radioactive material produced in the Bakken.
But he wonders what would happen if even more landfills were permitted to take in the waste and then, one day, they shut down amid a lack of demand, leaving behind a potentially environmentally problematic situation.
At the same time, he acknowledged, “if we’re going to produce the waste in North Dakota, we should probably find a way to dispose of it, also.”
After Williams County denied the permit for the landfill north of Williston, Montgomery inquired with the Western Dakota Energy Association about the possibility of a study. The group represents counties, cities and school districts in areas that produce oil or coal, and it is paying for the study.
It has previously worked with Bogar, a former Williston city commissioner who has produced a study on oil revenue, among other topics in the past.
As part of the study, he hopes to produce a “heat map” showing which areas in the Bakken produce the most radioactive waste. Such information could be useful in determining where to locate landfills so that they are not built far away from where they are needed most, he said.
“We don’t want this stuff on our roads and coming through our town, but it kind of already is,” Bogar said, explaining that trucks travel North Dakota highways with the waste on board bound for landfills in other states, including in Montana.
In addition to the study, Montgomery envisions more conversations with officials in other oil counties to “work out a solution that’s best for all.”
Meanwhile, a yearlong moratorium continues on pending and new applications to store radioactive waste at landfills in Williams County. The commission put the brakes on applications in December when denying the permit for the landfill north of Williston so that it could have time to consult with others and gather information about the waste.
Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or email@example.com.
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