Extraction companies have always known exactly what to do with the fossil fuels pulled out of the Bakken formation.
But early in the boom, no one really knew what to do with the tons of radioactive waste that drillers produced.
“Couple of municipal landfills started getting materials coming in from the landfill,” said Scott Radig, who retired earlier this year as director of waste management for the North Dakota Department of Health. “And they really weren’t set up to take filter socks and oilfield waste. They were set up to take oilfield trash.”
The filter socks were the main culprit. They collect naturally occurring radiation by filtering wastewater from fracking, and they're discarded in large numbers. Prior to 2016, North Dakota tightly restricted the dumping of radioactive waste in landfills. Illegal dumps popped up across the state, including one in an abandoned gas station.
By 2013, extraction companies found a haven in Montana, which had no administrative rules for radioactive oilfield waste. The only landfill of its kind in Montana, located near Glendive, has taken in about 253,000 tons of oilfield waste since 2013.
Now Montana is moving ahead with regulations. Last Friday, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality released its first proposal for radioactive oilfield waste dumps. The rules would dictate sampling, storage and radiation emissions standards for this type of waste.
Montana regulators disagree that the situation was lawless — the state’s sole facility has an operating agreement with the state that touches on many aspects of the upcoming official rules. But environmental watchdogs are applauding the move toward a standardized system.
The Northern Plains Resource Council, a Billings-based conservation organization, has been advocating for tighter regulation of oilfield waste. The group's press release said on Tuesday that while more improvements can be made, the proposed rules are a welcome sign.
“This is the DEQ’s opportunity to do it right,” said Seth Newton, a Glendive-area rancher who was quoted in the release. “There are still concerns that need to be addressed to protect our water and our livelihoods.”
The Oaks Disposal Landfill started taking truckloads in 2013. It was opened by Ross Oakland, whose $2 million donation led to Dawson County High School’s state-of-the-art athletic complex.
Buckhorn Energy Services of Colorado acquired the landfill in 2015.
The facility sits about 25 miles northwest of town and is still the only facility operating in Montana that takes radioactive oilfield waste. It’s the only licensed landfill of that kind, anyway. In 2014, the DEQ ordered a facility near Bainville to stop accepting illegal dumps of radioactive waste.
The Oaks facility entered into an operating agreement with the state that laid out how much radioactivity could be present in the waste and how it’s tested. At that time, the state regulatory approach was case-by-case.
“When we first came to start licensing the types of landfills that would manage technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material, we had in place enough research that we felt comfortable that we could be environmentally protected by making those conditions part of the operating license,” said Ed Thamke, DEQ bureau chief of waste and underground tank management.
Technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material, known as TENORM, refers to waste items like filter socks that collect concentrated amounts of natural radioactivity from underground. There are multiple measurements used to regulate the waste, but most common are picocuries per gram, or pCi/g.
Under the operating agreement with the DEQ, the Oaks landfill near Glendive has a limit of 30 pCi/g. Anything more than that must be sent elsewhere.
Some states have set much higher limits. A Colorado facility can accept waste up to 2,000 pCi/g, High Country News reported.
Relying on a 2016 study commissioned by the state, the DEQ’s proposed rules increase the limit to 50 pCi/g. But it also calls for more stringent sample testing of the waste — and even stricter still for filter socks.
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Until 2016, North Dakota limited radioactive waste to 5 pCi/g. With cleanup ongoing for illegal dump sites, the state began researching new rules in 2014. It eventually landed on a 50 pCi/g limit.
Much of it is still trucked to Montana. The majority of radioactive waste at the Oaks facility comes from out of state — 79 percent in 2015.
“They’ve gotten a fair amount of waste from North Dakota,” Radig said.
The DEQ’s report says that its proposed radiation parameters represent a safe exposure level for people nearby. But landowners have felt impacts from the busy site for years, and they're worried about potential future spills.
The Kubesh family has farmed in the area for 100 years, according to family patriarch Grant Kubesh. The dirt roads to the Oaks landfill run alongside their property.
He said that the landfill brought truck traffic — so much so that the county keeps road grading equipment out there full-time. And the trucks have spilled along the roadside.
Kubesh said the area smells like a drill site, and the wind brings over dust from atop the radioactive waste. To control the dust, the county increased the use of magnesium chloride on the road, which corroded the family’s equipment.
“It was a tremendous effect on all of us here through living here,” said Kubesh, 57. The Kubeshes are also Northern Plains members.
The family sued the DEQ in 2014, saying the agency failed to adequately address spills, dust control and other impacts brought by the landfill. The settlement in 2016 included a new administrative rule that required trucks to secure and cover their loads.
Water contamination is also a concern. Kubesh said they have a well within a mile of the landfill. They had it tested after the facility came online. He said an aquifer used for his livestock sits 10 feet below the landfill.
A North Dakota health department advisory said that this type of radiation poses the most risk when ingested with water or food.
Newton, the Northern Plains spokesman, also voiced concerns about water contamination in a press release. He pointed out that while groundwater testing is mandated, it’s up to the landfill operator to self-report the findings.
He’s also worried about how a major flood would affect that landfill and others.
The DEQ has licensed two TENORM landfills that haven’t been built: one south of Outlook and another north of Culbertson. The application for another facility, which would be built near Sidney, is still under review.
Two public hearings on the proposed rules will be held next month. The first will be Sept. 7 in Helena, and the second will take place Sept. 20 in Sidney. Kubesh plans on attending one of them.
“Anything would be an improvement from just the wild West that’s been going on,” he said. “There’s no rules.”