Officials in McKenzie County say they want to better understand the risks of a proposed oilfield waste facility that would involve injecting a mixture of solid and liquid waste underground.
The North Dakota Department of Health will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Watford City Civic Center for a radioactive materials handling license sought by Waste Management of North Dakota.
The North Dakota Industrial Commission also is considering the company's application to drill two injection wells at the same location that would involve the underground injection of slurry, or ground-up solid waste that is blended with produced water.
Some county and township officials say they have concerns about the proposal, including the proximity of the wells to the Tobacco Garden aquifer. Waste Management’s application says one disposal well would be 1,475 feet from the aquifer and the other about 2,290 feet away.
“It seems a bit close,” said Jim Talbert, planning and zoning director for McKenzie County.
The company anticipates accepting waste with technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material, or TENORM, according to the application to the health department.
Rex Korslien, superintendent for Twin Valley Township, said he’s not necessarily opposed to the proposal, but he wants to get his concerns addressed.
“We don’t exactly know what it is,” Korslien said. “You hear the word radioactive and it’s scary.”
The Health Department's review will focus on the handling of radioactive materials.
The Industrial Commission has not yet made a decision on the injection wells, but the public comment period is now closed, said Oil and Gas Division spokeswoman Alison Ritter. Several in McKenzie County said they didn’t know about the Industrial Commission’s review, which included a hearing in August in Bismarck, until it was too late to participate.
“It is one that we missed,” Talbert said.
Waste Management also has indicated plans to apply to the Industrial Commission for a treating plant permit at the same location, and the public would have the opportunity to comment. The company’s attorney has said he may seek a January hearing for that permit, Ritter said.
Waste Management says in its application there is a need for safe and economic oilfield waste disposal in North Dakota. Currently, solid oilfield waste is disposed of in landfills or drill cuttings pits.
The company proposes to build the Tobacco Garden Processing Facility about 12 miles north of Watford City to prepare solid and liquid waste to be injected about a mile underground.
The application says slurry injection involves grinding solid wastes into particles and blending them with produced water. The facility would inject an average of 15,000 barrels per day into an underground zone known as the Inyan Kara Formation that is often used for wastewater injection in North Dakota.
It is not clear from Waste Management’s permit application what level of radioactive waste the company anticipates blending with produced water and injecting underground. The company did not return a call seeking comment on Friday afternoon.
Oilfield wastes, such as tank bottom sludge and scale that forms inside well pipes and equipment contain TENORM, which is created when materials with Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material are removed from the earth and concentrated by activities such as oil and gas production.
Radioactive waste with levels above 5 picocuries per gram is currently trucked out of state. The North Dakota Department of Health increased the state’s limit to 50 picocuries per gram but has yet to permit any facilities to accept waste at higher levels.
The Health Department’s limit on radioactive waste applies to solid waste, not liquid waste injected below ground, said Dale Patrick, manager of the Health Department’s radioactive materials program.
The permit application the Health Department is considering would focus on the safe handling of radioactive materials above ground, while the Industrial Commission has jurisdiction over the liquids injected underground, Patrick said.
The company identified five freshwater wells within one mile of the proposed injection wells. Two are domestic wells, two are observation wells and one is a stock well, according to the permit application.
Karl Rockeman, director of the Health Department’s Water Quality Division, said the Tobacco Garden aquifer is a shallow aquifer that is mostly used for private domestic wells. Watford City gets its water from the Western Area Water Supply Project, but the Tobacco Garden aquifer could serve as a backup water source in the event of a pipeline break, Rockeman said.
The company says in its application that waste would be injected about 3,630 feet below the closest source of drinking water, separated by zones of impermeable shales.
McKenzie County officials would like to see additional monitoring wells and oversight to protect the aquifer, said Talbert.
“If everything’s working properly, it probably is not a threat to the aquifer,” Talbert said. “The problem is if there’s a breach.”
The McKenzie County Water Resource District has rural distribution water lines that border the proposed facility on three sides, said Director Jeff Shaffer. The lines serve 50 households.
“We feel it is too close to our water lines,” Shaffer said.
In addition, an unnamed, intermittent stream that flows into Tobacco Garden Creek is about 200 feet north of the property, according to the application.
Shaffer said the Water Resource District did not know about the Industrial Commission application until it was too late to comment.
The Industrial Commission publishes hearing dockets online and in legal sections of newspapers. In addition, the county receives an email with the hearing docket if it involves waste disposal. Landowners within a quarter-mile get notified by certified mail.
“With as much stuff that goes on out here in western North Dakota, it would take a full-time position to review every application that is published in the newspaper,” Shaffer said.
In this case, the notice that was published said, “Application of Waste Management of ND, Inc for an order authorizing the drilling of a saltwater disposal well to be utilized for fracture injection into the Dakota Group in the Davis SWD #1 well,” along with the legal description of the property.
Shaffer said he doesn’t typically comment on saltwater disposal well applications, but he would want to comment about a proposal involving radioactive waste.
Twin Valley Township officials weren’t aware of the proposal until a landowner in the area brought it to their attention, Korslien said. Now the board is trying to get more facts before taking a position on the proposal, he said.
“We can’t be in the middle of the oilfield and be opposed to oil production,” Korslien said. “But there are a lot of unknowns we feel we need answered first.”
The company’s application to the Health Department can be accessed at www.ndhealth.gov/aq/publiccom.aspx.
The Oil and Gas Division hearing dockets can be found at www.dmr.nd.gov/oilgas. If Waste Management gets scheduled for a January hearing to consider a treating plant application, it would be either Jan. 17 or Jan. 18 and the hearing docket would be posted around Jan. 1.