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North Dakota on brink of more radioactive oil waste disposal options

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Pump jacks

Pump jacks bob for oil off U.S. Highway 85 in western North Dakota.

North Dakota's oil industry could soon have a second option for disposing of radioactive waste within the state, and a regulator sees potential for more facilities.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission recently permitted a second well slated for McKenzie County in which oil field waste would be mixed with saltwater into a slurry and injected deep underground. State Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms anticipates the other three core Bakken counties -- Williams, Mountrail and Dunn -- could each have a well down the road.

“That would round us out pretty well and put us in a situation where much of our TENORM waste could be dealt with very economically and dealt with here in-state in an extremely safe manner,” he said, using the acronym for technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material.

About 100,000 tons of radioactive oil field waste is produced in the state each year. Until the first slurry well started operating near Watford City in April, it was all trucked to other states for disposal in landfills or, more rarely, dumped illegally. North Dakota did not have any options for disposal within the state.

The waste stems from soil, water and rocks that naturally contain low levels of radiation underground. When those materials are brought up to the earth’s surface during oil production, radiation can become concentrated in filter socks used to strain oil field fluids, in sludge at the bottom of storage tanks and in scale that forms in well pipes.

The well recently approved by regulators still needs to secure a radioactive material license from the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality to take in such waste. It’s slated to be built north of Alexander by a company called GMJS Services.

Company Director Gary Woolsey has worked on similar projects around the world for 30 years. He hopes to have the well operating by next summer. It will inject the slurry about 6,000 feet deep into the Inyan Kara, which is the same rock formation many wells target for the disposal of saltwater, a byproduct of oil production.

“This stuff is not coming back,” he said, adding that disposal down a well "is safer than anything else."

Helms said “there have been no surprises” with the way the first slurry well has operated so far. That well is run by a company called KT Enterprises.

Waste Management of North Dakota also has proposed a well in McKenzie County.

Landfills could also potentially store the radioactive material. Two sites near Williston are seeking permission to bury it following new rules that took effect in 2016 raising the cap on the level of radiation of the material a landfill could accept. There is no limit on the level for slurry wells.

The Williams County Commission authorized the landfill projects this past summer, but they require state permits before they could begin taking in the material. Those projects have faced opposition from nearby residents with safety concerns.

The GMJS well project has received complaints from a couple McKenzie County residents.

“I hope it works for them, but I’m just not very happy with where they’re locating it,” Tri Township Supervisor B.J. Lindvig said. “I think there are better places for these types of things. A very big concern is traffic and trucks, and we will probably be getting complaints.”

The well would be located on land owned by the company Anytime Hydroexcavation off U.S. Highway 85. It’s not far from a housing subdivision, and the area already has a lot of truck traffic due to an industrial park in the vicinity, Lindvig said.

Woolsey said the site surrounding the well can accommodate up to 20 trucks at a time, which should keep vehicles from queuing up on the road. He added that the company would halt trucks from coming in and out when school buses were in the area.

GMJS Services is a new company, founded after Woolsey found himself without a job given the oil industry downturn brought on by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. He lives in Houston and plans to open an office in Williston as the well project materializes.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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