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After several years of complaints from neighbors in Dawson County, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality released a draft of proposed regulations for landfills licensed to hold low-level radioactive waste last August. The only such landfill licensed and operating in Montana or in North Dakota is located in Dawson County. It holds radioactive oilfield waste from Bakken drilling.

Four months later, Montana DEQ is still working on the regulations and is in the final steps of licensing a fourth landfill to accept radioactive waste from oilfield development. (Two previously licensed landfills haven’t been built.)

Small wonder that ranchers living and working near the Oaks Disposal site in Dawson County have been worried about the truckloads of waste passing by their property. They are concerned that nearby ground and surface water could become contaminated with radiation. The disposal site near Glendive has accepted hundreds of thousands of tons of oilfield waste since 2013.

DEQ officials point out that each licensed landfill operator is regulated. However, there isn’t a set of rules written, publicized and applied to all of TENORM (technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material) disposal sites.

The DEQ is accepting public comment on licensing for a fourth TENORM disposal site until Jan. 29. The proposed Yellowstone Disposal landfill would be located on a 2,600-acre tract about 4½ miles southeast of Sidney. The license application from IHD Environmental of Williston, N.D., indicates that 55 acres would be used for disposal of TENORM.

Meanwhile, the DEQ says final radioactive disposal rules may be out this fall.

Why is the Montana rule-making taking years? Why does the DEQ timeline have final rules coming out a full year after the draft rules?

Department spokeswoman Kristi Ponozzo summarized the department’s process: “It is currently DEQ’s intent that on or before Jan. 30, 2018, we will submit a request to the Secretary of the State’s Office to extend the rulemaking process for an additional 90 days. The purpose of this extension is to allow sufficient time to address the numerous comments we received during the regular and extended public comment periods. The notice of extended rulemaking should be published by the SOS no later than Feb. 9, 2018.

“Based upon the public input we have already received, DEQ will be revising the proposed TENORM rules and noticing the revisions during the spring of 2018. Those revisions to the original proposed rules will undergo another public comment period and possibly another public hearing. When the revisions have been thoroughly vetted, the agency will provide a response to all substantive comments and submit the final rules to the SOS for adoption. We hope to have a final rule package complete by the fall of 2018.”

Montana DEQ should be responsive to public comments. These rules are Montana’s opportunity to get regulation right — for the public, the landfill operators and the oil industry.

But Montanans like Seth Newton whose ranch is near the Oaks Disposal landfill outside of Glendive are right to worry about the lack of rules. As Newton told The Billings Gazette last week: “Until Montana develops standards and protections, we’re going to continue to be North Dakota’s dumping ground.”

It’s up to concerned Montanans to keep pushing for TENORM rules. The federal government doesn’t regulate this low-level radioactive waste. North Dakota developed rules in 2016, but no such disposal sites have chosen to open there. Montana has no universal rules, and gets radioactive waste.

In this case, good, comprehensive rules will make better neighbors.

-- Billings (Mont.) Gazette

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