North Dakota health officials vote to loosen rules for radioactive oilfield waste dumping

IndustriesAssociated Press

Companies would be allowed to dispose of oilfield waste with much higher levels of radioactivity at some North Dakota landfills instead of hauling the material out of state, under rules approved Tuesday by the state Health Council.

The 11-member advisory panel to the state Health Department voted unanimously to raise from 5 picocuries per gram to 50 picocuries per gram the allowable concentrations of TENORM — technologically enhanced radioactive material — that may be disposed of at approved landfills. Picocuries are a measure of radioactivity.

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As North Dakota has risen to become the nation's No. 2 oil producer behind Texas, it has faced increased problems with illegal oil waste dumping. Its 5 picocurie limit, a level health officials say can even be registered by a household granite countertop, is among the lowest in the nation. Texas and Washington set their limits at 10,000 picocuries, health officials say.

The higher 50 picocurie level is still safe for humans and the environment, said Dave Glatt, chief of the environmental health section of the North Dakota Department of Health, though he acknowledged that raising the threshold "is an emotional issue for a lot of folks."

North Dakota's oil industry has backed the new rules intended to crack down on the illegal dumping of radioactive oil filter socks, the tubular nets that strain liquids during the oil production process.

Critics aren't convinced, and fear the new rules may spur companies from other states to bring their radioactive waste to the state.

"We could end up being the dumping ground in North Dakota for a lot of other states," said Darrell Dorgan, a member of the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, a watchdog group critical of oilfield waste dumping.

Before a change would take effect, the new rules must pass before the state attorney general and the Legislature's Administrative Rules Committee, which has the power to block, change or delay the implementation of new regulations.

North Dakota currently has 13 special waste and industrial waste landfills that could handle radioactive waste under the new rules, but they would have to apply for special permits, Glatt said.

"Our state is not capable of handling this material as of yet," said Nicole Donaghy, a spokeswoman for the Dakota Resource Council, an environmental-minded landowner group.

North Dakota generates up to 75 tons of radioactive waste daily, largely from oil filter socks, Glatt said. The filter socks, which can become contaminated with naturally occurring radiation, are banned for disposal in North Dakota if they surpass the 5 picocurie threshold.

Oil companies are supposed to haul them to approved waste facilities in other states that allow a higher level of radioactivity in their landfills. But dumping has become a greater problem. Last year, hundreds of illegal dumped filter socks were discovered in an abandoned building in Noonan, a tiny town in the northwest corner of the state.

Under the new rules, companies would have to keep "cradle-to-grave" records on oilfield waste, including the source, the amount, and certification of disposal from an approved dump site, Glatt said. He said he doubted waste from outside the state would be an issue because of the cost of transporting it to North Dakota.

The state based the new rules on a $182,000 study it funded by Illinois-based Argonne National Laboratories that sought to determine the exposure risk of radioactive waste to oilfield and landfill workers and the public. The study 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.