North Dakota proposes allowing radioactive oilfield waste to be disposed of in the state

Oil companies may be allowed to dispose of radioactive oilfield waste at some North Dakota landfills instead of hauling it out of state under new rules proposed by the state Health Department.

State regulators said the proposed rules that were publicly announced Friday will help track oilfield waste and come in response to the growing number of illegally tossed filter socks, the tubular nets that strain liquids during the oil production process.

The Health Department's proposal would raise the allowable concentrations of technologically enhanced radioactive material — or TENORM — to be disposed of at approved landfills from 5 picocuries per gram to 50 picocuries per gram. Picocuries are a measure of radioactivity.

The proposal also would 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, said Dave Glatt, chief of the North Dakota Department of Health's environmental health section.

North Dakota generates up to 75 tons of radioactive waste daily, largely from oil filter socks, Glatt said. Filter socks can become contaminated with naturally occurring radiation and 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 North Dakota has faced increased problems with illegal oil waste dumping in recent years as it has risen to become the nation's No. 2 oil producer, behind Texas. Officials increasingly have found the filter socks along roadsides, in abandoned buildings or in commercial trash bins, and the illegal dumping of oilfield waste has drawn national media attention.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said the proposed rules — something the industry has been pushing for years — would help stop the illegal dumping of oilfield waste.

"It's about time," said Ness, whose group represents more than 500 companies working in western North Dakota's oil patch.

"This is not a dangerous threshold," Ness said of the proposed elevated radioactive levels.

Environmental groups were critical of the proposal and signaled that a lawsuit would be forthcoming if the rules are adopted.

"This is an early Christmas gift to the oil industry," said Darrell Dorgan, a member of the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, a newly formed watchdog group critical of oilfield waste dumping.

Dorgan and Theodora Bird Bear, a spokeswoman for the Dakota Resource Council, said the state's rules shouldn't change.

"They can't manage the 5 picocurie limit now," Bird Bear. "How can they enforce it when it is tenfold?"

The state is basing its proposal 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.

The study found that the proposed higher levels of radioactive oilfield waste is not harmful to humans or the environment, he said.

"This is a safe level of radiation," Glatt said of the threshold that the study found acceptable. "It assumed workers would lay in the stuff all day, and that you could literally be two feet away from this stuff and have no exposure."

North Dakota has 10 special waste landfills and one industrial waste landfill at present that could handle radioactive waste under the proposed rules, but only if they chose to do so, Glatt said.

Public meetings have been slated around the state to get input on the proposal. Glatt said it would be several months before the new rules might be adopted.

"This is not a done deal by any stretch," Glatt said.