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Radioactive waste from drilling stirs controversy in North Dakota

13 August 2013 George Lobsenz

North Dakota officials are grappling with rising controversy over disposal of increasing amounts of radioactive waste from unconventional oil and gas producers, an issue that is also gaining the attention of policymakers-and environmentalists-in other states experiencing a boom in shale oil and gas drilling.

North Dakota's Department of Health recently commissioned a study to look at the rising tide of drilling waste containing naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) being generated in the state as well as an increasing number of incidents in which the state's trash disposal landfills are receiving oilfield waste shipments with NORM levels exceeding state regulatory limits for such landfills.

In particular, state regulators and managers of multiple North Dakota landfills say high NORM concentrations-typically from radium and other trace radioactive metals brought up from underground--have been found in so-called "filter socks" used to separate solids from flowback water. The contaminated socks increasingly have shown up in trash loads over the last two to three years, as drilling in the Bakken and Three Forks formations continues.

The state's landfill regulations do not allow for disposal of any waste with radiation levels above five picocuries per gram (pCi/g)-a level that filter socks, contaminated pit linings and other drilling wastes from North Dakota plays commonly exceed, according to industry sources. As a result, most of the state's radioactive drilling wastes are disposed of at certified facilities in Idaho and Colorado.

However, North Dakota and waste disposal industry officials note the state's disposal limits on NORM are much stricter than other states. As a result, North Dakota officials say their study will look at whether the state's regulations should be relaxed given conclusions by other states that higher levels of NORM do not threaten the environment or public health.

But one environmental group in the state is speaking out against any move by North Dakota authorities to ease NORM disposal limits. The Energy Industry Waste Coalition-cofounded by Darrell Dorgan, brother of former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.)-fears that increasing the limits could turn North Dakota into a dumping ground for radioactive waste.

"The law says five picocuries, and that's what we want," Dorgan told IHS The Energy Daily in a recent interview. "If other states reduce their maximum levels, North Dakota could end up as a dump site for waste from many other states and Canada.

"I'm not concerned about the practices of the big operators; they know how to handle the waste. I'm worried that a fly-by-night services company may dump the waste off the side of the road because they don't care. The coalition's goal is to bring sunshine to the process and open it up to the public."

Similar NORM debates have erupted in other states where hydraulic fracturing has ramped up oil and gas development. Pennsylvania regulators are studying the issue; Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) has proposed increasing the state's landfill radiation limits and radiation meters reportedly have been set off at Texas landfills.

According to Scott Radig, director for the Division of Waste Management at the North Dakota Department of Health, most North Dakota landfills test every load of drilling waste with radiation meters to check for "hot loads" that exceed state radiation limits. Loads that are caught at the gate are rejected, and reported to the Health Department by the landfill operator.

But sometimes hot loads are not detected at the gate and make it into the landfill. If a landfill finds filter socks or contaminated pit liners during disposal, the landfill fines the company that brought the waste and files an incident report with the Health Department.

Radig said the NORM-impacted material is unlikely to cause health problems, but the local news outlets have covered the story closely, raising public concern over the issue.

The state Department of Health is working with the Energy and Environmental and Research Center (EERC) at the Universityof North Dakota to determine whether the state should raise its radiation limits to accommodate in-state disposal. The agency expects a study on the issue to be completed by the end of the year, Radig said.

Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council (NDPC), said the industry group supports the EERC study, which will provide North Dakota-specific data to inform the development of regulations for the disposal of NORM-impacted material.

"The NDPC is looking forward for the EERC to provide the necessary science for robust rulemaking on NORM disposal within North Dakota," Cutting said. "It's better to have the material trucked out of state to a proper waste disposal site, as it is now, than to not have the good science to base the rulemaking on."Cutting said the NDPC will comment on the Health Department rulemaking to ensure that the rules do not unnecessarily hamper oil and gas development in the state.

The NORM issue has become increasingly prominent at the landfill operated by McKenzie County, which has 78 drilling rigs currently in operation, the most of any North Dakota County.

The county landfill fines companies $1,000 for each filter sock that exceeds the NORM limit, according to Rick Schreiber, the county's solid waste director. The entire load is then reloaded and removed from the landfill for proper disposal.

Schreiber said 177 radioactive filter socks entered the facility in April 2013 and as many as 10 loads were rejected at the gate due to radiation levels. In one egregious case, a single load with 160 filter socks unloaded at the landfill, resulting in a $160,000 fine.

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