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DARRELL DORGAN: N.D. as ‘Superfund’ site: It can happen here

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opinion Grand Forks, 58203
Grand Forks Herald
(701) 780-1123 customer support
Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

BISMARCK — We in North Dakota have one of the world’s hottest economies. Because of a booming oil industry, there’s no unemployment, our population is increasing, and bank vaults are full.

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We’re the envy of the world, but we’re also on the edge of a man-made ecological disaster. Radioactive and toxic waste can and will cause cancer, and tons of it — generated from well sites in western North Dakota — have been illegally dumped across the state.

We are being inundated by dangerous radioactive waste and toxic chemicals. And, unless something happens quickly, then in the words of an industry leader, this could result in some big portion of northwestern North Dakota becoming a “Superfund site” — simply put, a national sacrifice zone.

The job of the North Dakota Health Department and other state agencies is to protect the health and welfare of people who live here, not increase the profits of the oil industry. But it’s the latter, not the former, that has been the norm.

We have laws; but until the past week, there was virtually no enforcement. No one is being held accountable.

After a series of embarrassing disclosures about radioactive and toxic waste being found, charges were filed against a trucking company, and it could result in fines up to $1 million.

The company appears to have been operating openly despite having lacked a waste-hauling license for nearly six years.

But I’m sure North Dakotans are comforted to hear Health Department officials — who are in charge of licensing haulers — say, “There really is no excuse for them not to know they need a license.”

The oil industry generates tons of radioactive waste daily. State laws require waste above 5 picocuries per gram to be shipped to approved sites in either Colorado or Idaho to be safely disposed of. The oil industry asked the Health Department two years ago to review disposal rules, citing cost.

The department agreed and stopped enforcing the disposal laws until a study was done (using oil industry money).

Consequently, tons of cancer-causing radioactive waste have been dumped in western North Dakota. It’s in the water we drink, the air you breathe, the food you eat. The Health Department can’t tell you where; the department simply quit tracking and told local municipalities to keep it out of their landfills.

Last year, the landfill at Watford City, N.D., discovered 1,000 radioactive filter socks hidden in oil trucks as they were being smuggled into the landfill. Hundreds more were found at the Williston landfill.

When department officials were asked last year where the radioactive waste was going after being rejected by local landfills, they didn’t know. But we’re starting to find out:

Hundreds of filter socks were found stashed near Watford City recently, and hundreds more in an abandoned garage in Noonan, N.D. It’s a safe bet there are thousands more scattered around the state.

Stories abound of trucks with radioactive and other toxic waste dumping in ditches, fields and creeks.

In response to the outrage over the mishandling of radioactive and toxic waste, the Health Department last week announced that operators of salt-water disposal sites will be required to provide on-site radioactive filter sock containers that will be collected and disposed of at authorized facilities out of state. It’s basically what state law now requires.

I’m thrilled the department has decided to begin enforcing rules and regulations regarding radioactive waste, but many questions remain unanswered.

  • Why were the new guidelines initiated by the State Department of Mineral Resources Oil and Gas Division, not the Health Department, which is supposed to be enforcing the handling of radioactive and toxic waste?
  • What has happened to the tons of waste that have not been accounted for?
  • Who authorized the Health Department to stop enforcing the laws regarding the handling of radioactive and toxic waste?
  • Did, as rumors suggest, the Department of Mineral Resources let the North Dakota Petroleum Council to review the new guidelines?

The Health Department is understaffed and outgunned. There are more Border Patrol and FBI agents working the oil patch than Health Department inspectors.

In the 1970s, despite intense industry lobbying, state government joined with public interest groups to pass stringent strip-mine reclamation laws. Our statutes were used as models for federal legislation. Land has and is being reclaimed, and industry has safely paid its way.

I’m proud of what we did in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m ashamed and outraged at what is happening today.

Health Department and oil industry officials like to claim a 5 picocuries-per-gram level of radioactivity is the same as getting a dental X-ray. Could be. But North Dakotans should follow up with this question: Why do dentists make you wear a lead apron when they X-ray your teeth?

A journalist and a documentary filmmaker, Dorgan is the founder of the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition.

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