BISMARCK, N.D. — People have been caught nearly 150 times in the past year attempting to illegally dump loads of oil field waste — much of it radioactive — at two of the biggest landfills in western North Dakota, records obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press show. None of the incidents resulted in fines or other sanctions from the state, and the most regulators required was that offenders promise to properly dispose of the waste, officials said.
"The state has no idea where this stuff is and what's happening to it," said Darrell Dorgan, a member of the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, a newly formed watchdog group that is attempting to document illegal oilfield waste dumping. "It's being scattered all across western North Dakota."
The AP requested the dumping statistics Wednesday, hours before state health officials announced they are writing new rules to track oil field waste.
Scott Radig, the state Health Department's waste management director, said the new rules are in response to a growing number of illegally tossed filter socks — tubular nets that strain liquids in the oil production process and can become contaminated with naturally occurring radiation.
Filter socks are banned for disposal in North Dakota, and oil companies are supposed to haul them to approved waste facilities in other states, such as Montana, Colorado and Idaho, which allow a higher level of radioactivity in their landfills.
"Basically, it's just a difference in state laws, not necessarily the type of landfill," Radig said of the allowable levels of radiation.
Radig said the radioactive filter socks increasingly are being found along roadsides, in abandoned buildings or in commercial trash bins of an unsuspecting business, sometimes that of a competing oil company.
State records show that from January 2013 through early February of this year, landfills in Williston and in McKenzie County — in the heart of North Dakota's booming oil patch — rejected 147 loads of oilfield waste, 95 of which contained filter socks. The illegal loads were detected when the landfills conducted routine tests that showed elevated radiation levels.
The AP requested state data from North Dakota's eight special waste landfills and the one industrial waste landfill that can handle non-radioactive waste, including contaminated soil and drill cuttings. Only the landfills in Williston and in McKenzie County reported radioactive waste, Radig said.
Radig said most of the filter socks were mixed with non-hazardous or household wastes. Several rejected loads also contained petroleum-contaminated pit liners from rig locations, he said.
Although the state has not penalized such illegal dumping, local operators of landfills increasingly are levying fines of up to $1,000 for every filter sock, Radig said.
"Enforcement, so far, has only been done at the local level," he said. "Many times the person found illegal dumping is an innocent party taking someone else's trash to the landfill. We really don't feel right going after victims."
The state has undertaken a $182,000 study to explore the possibility of allowing radioactive waste from the oil patch in state landfills. The study by Illinois-based Argonne National Laboratories also will determine the exposure risk for oilfield and landfill workers and the public, Radig said. The study, which is due this summer, originally was to be funded in part by the oil industry but that plan was scrubbed after public criticism that it smacked of conflict of interest.
Radig said the new rules may require companies to keep "cradle-to-grave" records on oilfield waste, including the source, the amount, and certification of disposal from an approved dump site. A draft of the new rules is to be ready for public comment in June.
"We're just getting started and just starting to work out the details," Radig said. "We are playing catch-up."
Dorgan, the member of the citizen group, said the state should have had such rules in place long before the explosion of oil activity began a few years ago.
"This is at least five years too late," said Dorgan, a brother of former North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan.
The watchdog group has offered suggestions on how to track filter socks, including requiring companies to get them from the state and pay a deposit on them. More filter socks would be issued once companies prove the material was properly disposed, he said.
"We should treat filter bags like we treat pop bottles," Dorgan said. "It's highly workable. It works for pop bottles, why not filter socks?"
Radig said such a requirement would have to be approved by the Legislature.
Some filter socks have serial numbers, but those that are illegally dumped almost always have the identifying data cut off, Radig said.
"Most companies are trying to do the right thing, but a few — and maybe more than a few — bad actors are trying to cut corners to save time and money," Radig said. "It has been an ongoing problem and has gotten to the point something needed to be done. I do think that all oil companies can do a better job of managing their waste."