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Public bring long list of suggestions for radioactive waste rules

Signs opposing raising the amount of radioactive waste allowed in North Dakota sit on chairs as members of the public circulate with questions for experts at a health department hearing in Williston on Tuesday.Press Photo by Katherine Lymn

WILLISTON, N.D. -- Industry experts and environmentalists suggested changes Tuesday at a hearing on the North Dakota Department of Health's proposed rules for increasing the amount of radioactive waste in the state.

The similarities basically ended there.

Environmentalists, like those with the Dakota Resource Council, say the industry had too big of a role in crafting the rules, and that raising the permitted radioactivity levels is unhealthy. They say the state is struggling to regulate the industry as it is, and increasing the amount of radioactivity allowed would only make things worse.

The rules would increase how radioactive waste can be and would still be disposed of within North Dakota. "Technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material," or TENORM, is present in oilfield waste created by the tons everyday in North Dakota, and includes filter socks, tank sludge and pipe scale.

The rules increase the maximum picocurie concentration allowed to be disposed of in-state from 5 to 50 picocuries per gram. Tuesday's was the first in a blitz of hearings, with one today in Bismarck and a final hearing Thursday in Fargo.

About 100 members of the public showed up at the WIlliston Area Recreation Center on Tuesday evening for the information session and formal comment period.

Representatives from the oil and gas industry and experts in radiation largely agreed with the 50 picocurie per gram limit to the waste allowed in the state, but brought up issues with how field testing can be performed.

"First and foremost, I'd like to say I'm specifically troubled by the compliance predicament presented by these proposed regulations," said Jay Almlie, a senior researcher with the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center. From his own research at the EERC, he's learned the best tests of picocurie concentration take 21 days at a certified lab -- not exactly feasible for operators who need to know where waste should go -- in-state or out -- as it's generated. Currently, the waste is trucked out, mostly to three landfills in Montana, Colorado and Idaho.

"There is no way to measure that in the field in a timely matter," Almlie said.

And an industry expert in TENORM asked what happens during the in-between.

"Will all TENORM require analytics before leaving the generator's site?" asked Laura Erickson, who owns Plains Energy Technical Resources, an oil and gas consultancy firm in Williston.

Robert Morris, a certified health physicist specializing in radioactivity, said he has heard of a test with a one-day turnaround, but brought up another oversight issue.

"Who makes the measurements, who's responsible for the measurement being correct, and how do you enforce that measurement to make sure it's actually being made?" he asked.

A pivotal part in the drafting of the rules was a study the health department commissioned from Argonne National Laboratory.

Environmental activist Darrell Dorgan questioned the industry's role in the study. Argonne obtained some of its samples from oil companies, study co-author Chris Arto said in his presentation.

"To me, if the oil industry provides the samples for the study, it completely invalidates the study," Dorgan said. "So I feel very uneasy about that."

Many also called for more hearings and more time to look at the study.

"I think three hearings is ridiculous when you're talking about something that is going to affect the state for 10,000 years," Dorgan said.

The Dakota Resource Council has requested hearings in New Town, Noonan and Dickinson, and an extension in the written comment period, which currently is through Feb. 6.

Erickson and others supported the idea of in-state disposal in the big picture.

"There are no long-term guarantees that other states will continue accepting our waste," Erickson said. Plus, out-of-state transport makes the roads more dangerous and increases costs for companies, she said.

She listed a series of suggestions to make the rules more workable and clear for companies. She also pointed out how Argonne noted a second way to keep exposure under the recommended limit, besides limiting how many tons of the waste landfills can accept -- they can also limit the hours workers are exposed to the material.

Erickson urged including this option in the rule, noting medical services providers limit exposure that way.

Under the rules, industrial and special waste landfills that get a permit modification to accept TENORM could then each accept up to 25,000 tons of the waste a year, which would have to be buried at least 10 feet below the top of the closed landfill.

Daily, the landfills would have to cover the TENORM with at least a foot of non-TENORM waste.

Leachate and groundwater monitoring, as well as safety training of staff, would be required. Companies would also have to track the waste from when it's created to when it gets to a landfill.

North Dakota Department of Health Director of Waste Management Scott Radig specified Tuesday that the proposal only applies to TENORM, not NORM. They would apply to naturally radioactive waste for which radiation levels are elevated due to the extraction process. Drill cuttings are NORM, and not regulated with the rules, he said.

The Argonne study found the materials with the most to the least radioactive concentration are  scale, sludge, filter socks and synthetic proppants, Arto said.