Twenty miles south of the Canada border and 20 miles west of North Dakota, Montana's northeast corner is a rugged, fragile land, sparsely populated by farmers and ranchers whose hard work and fierce love of their land coaxes a living out of a place with thin topsoil and infrequent rainfall.

Government regulation generally isn't a popular idea in this conservative, self-sufficient region, but over the past few years many concerned citizens of Sheridan and other eastern Montana counties have spoken out on one set of state regs — still not finalized — that eventually will set standards for how low-level radioactive waste from oil drilling is disposed of in Montana landfills.

Montana issued permits for landfills to accept this waste before the state issued rules setting standards for protecting public health, water sources and air quality. One landfill, Buckhorn Energy Oaks Disposal Services, near Glendive has been operating for several years. Three more have received DEQ permits, but have not opened. One of those permitted, but not built sites, is a few miles upwind from Laurel Clawson's ranch west of Plentywood.

Clawson learned about the landfill permit from a neighbor who read about it in a Billings Gazette opinion two years ago. What Clawson learned from her own research is that the waste material proposed to be hauled north of Plentywood is classified as "technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material" or TENORM. This low-level radioactive material is concentrated in filter socks used in oil drilling. The oil production in the Bakken generates tons of this TENORM waste. During the Bakken boom, illegal dumps were discovered in western North Dakota. That state's law didn't allow disposal of TENORM in any landfills. Montana had no law, but issued an operating permit to a landfill in Dawson County. North Dakota drillers still haul truckloads of solid waste to Dawson County.

North Dakota has no TENORM approved landfill yet, although the Bismarck Tribune reported this month that the first may open soon. North Dakota law offers a good model Montana DEQ's latest final proposed rules were released for a 60-day public comment period Friday. Speak up box above for commenting information.

Montana's standards should be at least as strong as North Dakota's, but that isn't what the latest DEQ proposal says. For example, the Montana proposed rules would allow landfills to accept materials with four times the radioactive level (measured in picocuries) as North Dakota rules permit. 

Montana's water, land and air are as valuable as our neighbor's. Montanans deserve the same level of protection from radioactive dust that could blow off the landfill and settle in water sources, protection from radioactive waste that could be washed out of a landfill.

Oil is an essential commodity. There must be a safe place to responsibly dispose of the waste generated by oil production. What eastern Montana residents and other members of Northern Plains Resource Council ask is that the disposal be done right. Eastern Montana should not be a sacrifice zone. The rules here should be as tough as they are in North Dakota, which is reaping the bulk of oil production revenues.

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The Big Muddy Country where Clawson's family ranches is a series of drainages sloping down from the Canada border to the Missouri River. That topography adds to her concerns about a TENORM landfill because when it rains in Big Muddy Country, it rains big, maybe 4 inches at a time, washing out the gullies.

"Good stewardship is the unspoken norm, not only because people make a living in the ag sector, but I think most of us recognized that everything we love about our way of life is inseparable from ecological health," Clawson told The Gazette editorial board on a visit to Billings last week.

"This is a private property issue. If, because of the actions of a neighboring business, the creek that runs through our place is contaminated, if the aquifer is ruined, if airborne radioactive particles affect our health or quality of life, then our land is devalued and our business destroyed," she said.

That is the reason Clawson joined the Northern Plains Resource Council to work for TENORM rules. She thinks Montana standards should be as stringent as North Dakota standards. We agree. That should include having on-site inspections by DEQ or an expert not under contract to the landfill owner/operator. Accountability depends on more than self reporting and self inspection.

The DEQ has made some improvements in addressing TENORM disposal since untarped loads spilled waste materials along Dawson county roads en route to the Oaks landfill. But our state still lacks clear, comprehensive rules that neighbors and potential operators must know before truckloads of dirty sock filters start rolling past their property.

As Seth Newton whose ranch is near the Oaks landfill told The Gazette two years: “Until Montana develops standards and protections, we’re going to continue to be North Dakota’s dumping ground.”

Montanans appreciate that DEQ is taking time to get the rules right. After five years of work, it's high time to finalize rules that they are at least as strict as North Dakota's. 

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