Many who support the Department of Environmental Quality’s first-time effort to regulate radioactive oilfield waste disposal sites still find a draft of the rules severely lacking.
More than a dozen people testified in Helena on Thursday, all proponents of DEQ’s proposal for how to handle radioactive oilfield waste dumps. The rules will govern testing of what is disposed of, how it is stored and radiation emission standards.
At the height of the last oil boom, drilling companies with radioactive waste to dispose of flocked to Montana to dump because of the lack of regulations here.
Some waste byproducts produced during oil and gas extraction are radioactive. They contain either naturally occurring radioactive materials, known as NORM, or technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials, or TENORM. The latter is produced during the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process.
Currently one site near Glendive in northeastern Montana, Oaks Disposal, accepts radioactive waste. The facility opened in 2013 and has accepted 253,000 tons of oilfield waste to date. DEQ has licensed two other facilities to accept radioactive oilfield waste — one near Culbertson and another near Outlook. Neither have been built yet. An assessment is being done on a fourth facility proposed near Sidney.
Seth Newton lives on a ranch on Lower Deer Creek, downstream from the Oaks facility. He also is a spokesman for the Northern Plains Resource Council.
“Living alongside Montana’s only radioactive oil waste disposal facility has had enormous impacts on my family and the families around us,” he said. “So I’m very glad to see rules being created, and I’m also glad to know they will apply to existing facilities.”
But he objected to what he characterized as insufficient protections for groundwater. The draft rules require facilities do to their own monitoring annually and self-report the data.
“That seems to me like a conflict of interest,” Newton said. “If something goes wrong, it doesn’t seem to me like it would be in the facility’s interest to report it. … I’m tired of out-of-state companies getting more say, and more respect, than farmers and ranchers that make up the backbone of this state and the fabric of these communities. Water is the lifeblood of what we do, and without strong protections in place, that’s all at risk.”
Another person who testified said Oaks contracts with a third party and tests more frequently.
Newton and others also said that liquid waste poses more of a threat than solid waste. Others said they worried that the facility accepting metal could lead to a rupture in the site’s lining that could cause leaks.
In a question-and-answer session before the hearing, Newton and Grant Kubesh, who lives at the headwaters of Deer Creek, both pressed the department for better monitoring of spills. The department defines spills as being more than 25 gallons for a liquid or a cubic yard for a solid substance.
Kubesh said his farm is one of the closest to the facility and that trucks that travel along his road, sometimes up to 100 a day, can spill waste.
“There’s a very strong odor that hits the nose and goes into my body when they pass us on the road,” he said. “This is right next to my home and my barn. I would like DEQ to include a piece of the new rules that requires haulers to clean out their waste container box or truck trailers on the dump site.”
Kubesh said as part of a settlement from a lawsuit he filed against DEQ over spills from trucks, loads entering disposal sites must now be covered, but even then things still spill out the backs of haulers, and the containers aren’t cleaned or covered when they leave the site.
“It spills out on the roadway when they turn the corners, on the pavement and on our gravel road. … It splatters right in the windshield. They fill them full.”
Kubesh asked for an addition to the rule calling for either the use of sealed containers or for containers to be cleaned before leaving the disposal site.
Ed Thamke, chief of the Waste and Underground Tank Management Bureau, said he understood their concern, but there isn’t a way to monitor spills better.
“We just plain don’t have spill patrols,” Thamke said. “We wanted to get into this rule to do the best we could, but we can’t possibly as a state respond to every minor spill, and that’s where we have to draw the litmus (test). The pragmatic and the practical aspect is we’ll continue to do the best we can.”
“I wish it were more clean,” Thamke said. “I wish we had the ability to save the earth and protect it from every aspect of it, but again I think we need to focus on what we’re talking about. This is background-type material that sometimes the area where it spilled is as high as what we’re talking about. I’m not making excuses. I know it’s been frustrating. It’s been frustrating for you, but I just want to be honest.”
Thamke said rules will provide for clarity, regulatory consistency and the “necessary framework to protect human health and the environment.”
Rachel Torres, who lives in Glendive and has family who live downstream from the disposal facility, said she questioned the reliability of the DEQ after the department’s handling of a 2015 oil spill into the Yellowstone River. It took more than 24 hours for people to be notified about unsafe drinking water after the Poplar Pipeline ruptured in January 2015 and leaked 32,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone.
DEQ later conducted an After Action Review that analyzed what happened and made changes to improve its communications.
“Right now we’re being asked to trust the same agency, the DEQ, to protect our water and our safety. But I’ve already seen firsthand the reactive rather than proactive approach of this agency.”