Why does Montana deserve less than North Dakota?
Melissa Mittelstaed of Glendive posed that question in a Sept. 29 letter to The Gazette, expressing her concerns about proposed state regulations for landfills accepting low-level radioactive waste from oilfields. "If radiation levels ever spike, Montana landfills have 15 days to report it to DEQ," Mittelstaed wrote. "That is not acceptable. North Dakota requires landfills to stop accepting waste until the situation can be evaluated."
Another Voice of the Reader contributor, Dena Hoff of Glendive, wrote: "I live near Glendive. I love my home and community, but we also have a landfill that takes radioactive oilfield waste, mostly from North Dakota’s oilfields. I believe safe disposal is possible, but things need to be done right."
Anne Feist, a granddaughter of homesteaders, lives "outside of Glendive, downstream from Montana’s only active landfill for radioactive oilfield waste. This landfill, Oaks Disposal, takes most of its waste from North Dakota’s oilfields."
"Since the landfill opened, I have watched the traffic go from a few cars and trucks to a steady stream of trucks hauling waste to the dump," Feist wrote in her letter to The Gazette. "I can’t imagine how it feels for the closer neighbors with trucks going right through their yard."
On the evening of Sept. 24, about 70 people packed into a Glendive hearing room to comment on the Montana Department of Environmental Quality's latest proposed rules for disposal of TENORM (technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material).
Seth Newton, whose ranch is near the Oaks landfill outside of Glendive, worries about groundwater contamination. He wants storm water ponds at the landfill to be lined and he asked what had been done about groundwater well contamination reported in November 2018 by a testing laboratory. Ed Thamke, chief of the DEQ waste and underground tank bureau, told Gazette reporter Juliana Sukut that since the November report of elevated radioactive content, storm water ponds have been made three times larger and lined.
The rules proposed by DEQ would allow Montana landfills to accept loads of TENORM with four times the radioactivity level that is now allowed — four times the level the North Dakota will permit. North Dakota doesn't have any facility licensed to accept even that lower level of TENORM; most waste from drilling in that state has been trucked to the Oaks facility near Glendive.
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Alan Olson, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, was the only person to speak in favor of the higher radioactivity limit at the Glendive hearing. Reached by phone two days after the hearing, Olson told The Gazette that without the higher threshold per load, some loads that were mostly lower level would be rejected because one spot tested high. The landfill would still have to document that its average radioactivity level is no more than the present limit.
The Petroleum Association is still preparing its written comments on the proposed DEQ rules with assistance from a physicist. Overall, Olson says, the latest proposal improves on earlier iterations. "I think the department really has done a good job, working on this and getting the information out."
"We're in total agreement that we need to protect public health," Olson said. "Our people work with that stuff. We want to keep our people safe."
The Eastern Montana citizens we've heard from aren't demanding to shut anything down. They are asking the kind of questions most of us would if any waste disposal facility was proposed in our neighborhood. Heavy truck traffic, a motor vehicle collision with a TENORM truck, routinely spilled cargo (before DEQ started requiring tarping), and the lining of previously unlined storm water ponds all generate valid concerns.
People on all sides of the issue agree that the Montana DEQ has worked long (five years) and hard on these rules, yet the latest proposal does not do enough to address neighbors' concerns. DEQ officials told the Glendive hearing crowd that the rules were written to encourage the use of landfills as an alternative to illegal dumping, which has occurred most notably in North Dakota where there are no legal TENORM disposal sites.
The Oaks landfill has accepted around 200,000 tons of North Dakota waste since 2013. It's hard to argue that Montana should have lower standards than North Dakota to avoid having North Dakota waste being illegally dumped in that state.
We share the concerns we have heard from Glendive residents living near the TENORM landfill and call on DEQ to make Montana rules at least as strict as North Dakota's.