States lack rules for radioactive drilling waste disposal

New report calls for stronger regulation to protect human health and water quality.

 

The process of extracting oil and natural gas produces byproducts that sometimes create nasty results: briny wastewater that can kill plants and ; oil-based drilling mud and cuttings that can be toxic to fish; and radioactive sludge that’s filtered out of wastewater and builds up inside tanks and other pieces of equipment.

As HCN reported last year, in North Dakota alone, the state’s oil and gas operations generate an estimated 70 tons a day of radioactive waste. Because the waste is often too radioactive to be disposed of in landfills, it sometimes gets dumped illegally, creating a health and environmental hazard. There’s no federal oversight of such waste; that job is left to states, many of which don’t have any regulations for handling and disposing of it.

Now, the Western Organization of Resource Councils has produced a report titled “No Time to Waste,” detailing the regulatory situation in six Western states: Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. The report calls for federal regulation of radioactive oil and gas waste and more rigorous and comprehensive state standards. “Without thorough, stringent, and effective regulation of this waste stream, Western communities are left vulnerable to serious health and environmental impacts,” Bob LeResche, the WORC chair from Clearmont, Wyoming, said in a press release accompanying the report.

Bags full of radioactive oil filter socks, the nets that strain liquids during the oil production process, piled in an abandoned building in Noonan, North Dakota, in March 2014.
North Dakota Health Department

Radioactive oil and gas waste is produced mainly through hydraulic fracturing, which can result in injected water returning to the surface along with naturally-occurring radioactive materials from underground. That water gets filtered through “filter socks,” which then become radioactive as well. The radioactivity released by drilling is low-level, consisting of radium-226, radium-228, and radon gas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. “The radon is released to the atmosphere, while the produced water and mud containing radium are placed in ponds or pits for evaporation, reuse, or recovery.”

The radium can contaminate drinking water and builds up in the environment, eventually ending up in livestock, fish and food crops. Once it’s ingested, radium can cause health problems, including cancer.  Meanwhile, the produced water itself is sometimes hauled to sewage treatment plants that aren’t equipped to handle radioactivity, and the resulting water, often far from meeting federal drinking-water standards, is dumped into rivers.

A truck passing in front of a well flaring gas -- in McKenzie County west of Watford City, North Dakota.
Flickr user Tim Evanson

Here’s a summary of how solid radioactive waste is handled in each of those states, according to WORC. “TENORM” stands for “technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials”, defined as any radioactive materials exposed or concentrated by oil and gas operations.

Colorado:

  • No formal regulations for TENORM.
  • Attempt made to revise interim TENORM policy from 2007 for all industries, but process stalled out in 2014.
  • Has one facility that can handle TENORM waste at the highest radioactivity levels (2,000 picocuries per gram), which accepts waste from the Bakken, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico.

Idaho:

  • Has TENORM regulations but they don’t specify a limit on radioactivity.
  • Has one of largest commercial radioactive waste facilities in the West (that takes waste of up to 1,500 picocuries per gram) – takes waste from all over the country, even Pennsylvania.

Montana:

  • State is working on formal regulations for TENORM disposal, due in 2016.
  • Has special oilfield waste facility that takes waste up to 30 picocuries per gram, which is the closest, most convenient option for Bakken waste disposal. Operators in eastern Montana are trying to open similar facilities.

North Dakota:

  • New rules, yet to be confirmed, raise radioactivity limit for TENORM waste from 5 to 50 picocuries per gram. Rules are more aggressive in some ways, such as creating a tracking system for all TENORM loads, but fail to strengthen weak inspection and enforcement protocols.
  • Landfills around the state rejected 63 loads of TENORM waste last year that exceeded their radioactivity limits. Many of those loads were then trucked out of state to other facilities, or illegally dumped elsewhere.

South Dakota:

  • Has low radioactivity limit for solid waste disposal (5 picocuries per gram), but no other regulations specific to oil and gas waste.

Wyoming:

  • Does not regulate TENORM waste disposal or set enforceable limits on radioactivity.

The report concludes with several pages of recommendations for federal and state regulations, permitting, radioactivity limits, waste facility design, siting and operation, tracking and reporting, inspections and worker safety.

The North Dakota rule changes, say proponents, would help the oil and gas industry in that state, where collapsing oil prices are pushing companies to figure out how to shave costs. State regulators say the increase in radioactivity limits would save producers at least $120 million per year, since they’d no longer have to truck so many loads out of state for disposal.

That argument gets little traction among environmental groups. “When the Bakken oil boom started, the oil industry knew they were going to produce radioactive waste and they knew what they were required to do with it. But, they didn’t put that into their business plans,” wrote Theodora Bird Bear, chair of Dakota Resource Council’s Oil and Gas Task Force. “The process to increase the allowable level of radioactivity in our state began about two years ago with behind-closed-door meetings with the health department and the oil industry. The result is once again a green light to the oil industry, this time to dump more radioactive waste in our state.”

Jodi Peterson is a senior editor with High Country News.