New year brings changes in North Dakota oilfield waste rules

By James MacPherson, Associated Press

The new year comes with a new rule in North Dakota that allows elevated levels of oilfield radioactive waste to be disposed of at some landfills.

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The new year comes with a new rule in North Dakota that allows elevated levels of oilfield radioactive waste to be disposed of at some landfills, a move regulators and industry officials believe will help curb illegal dumping.

Environmental groups aren't convinced and have threatened lawsuits over the new rule that takes effect Friday, saying the public was not given enough input in its crafting.

"We don't think the state is up to the task of doing this job," said Don Morrison, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council. "They haven't had the capability of doing this yet."

The rule raises 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.

North Dakota generates up to 75 tons of radioactive waste daily, largely from oil filter socks, tubular nets that strain liquids during the oil production process. The filter socks can become contaminated with naturally occurring radiation and have been banned for disposal if they surpass the 5 picocurie threshold.

Dave Glatt, chief of the North Dakota Department of Health's environmental health section, said the state's new limit "is a safe level" for humans and the environment. He said the elevated level is similar to what is emitted by a granite countertop and less than many fertilizers or even low-sodium salt substitutes.

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

North Dakota's oil industry has backed the new rules, which will allow companies to dispose of the waste in some landfills instead of hauling it out of state.

North Dakota Petroleum Council Vice President Kari Cutting said companies typically have been sending radioactive waste to other states where thresholds are far above North Dakota's new limits, such as Colorado, which has a 2,000 picocurie limit.

"A vast majority of companies have been doing the right thing from the get-go," Cutting said.

The new rule was spurred last year after hundreds of illegal dumped filter socks were discovered in an abandoned building in Noonan, a tiny town in the northwest corner of the state.

The state based the new rule 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.

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