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Larry Heilmann: Big Oil echoes Big Tobacco’s claim: Don’t worry

FARGO — In a recent letter, Jay Almlie of UND’s Energy and Environmental Research Center discussed the safety of the radioactive waste being produced in the North Dakota oil fields (“Put science before emotion on topic of NORM waste,” Page A4, April 29).

The gist of his opinion is that this waste essentially is harmless, no more dangerous than granite countertops or bananas and that the public is just too ignorant to understand.

They should just leave the handling of this problem to the oil industry, whose contracts with EERC, by the way, help pay Almlie’s salary.

Almlie uses the term NORM — Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material — to describe this material. He is right that there is radiation everywhere and in everything, but his implication that this means the “natural” waste from oil production is no more dangerous than the soil in farm fields is very wrong.

The correct regulatory and legal term for this waste is TENORM — Technologically Enhanced NORM. Almlie knows this term well but chose not to use it.

The principal radioactive waste material in North Dakota is radium 226, an alpha- and gamma-radiation-emitting product of the decay of uranium, which naturally occurs in some strata of the Williston basin. The fracking and extraction of petroleum brings some of this to the surface.

The material has been concentrated and exposed — the regulatory definition of technologically enhanced. The concentration of the radium can be increased as much as several hundred fold, and it is now exposed to air and water used by people.

This stuff will not kill you immediately. It is in no way the equivalent of reactor fuel rods or weapons production waste; but it is a chronic, lifetime, accumulative poison.

It is particularly dangerous to young children. It is dangerous when ingested or inhaled. Radium is chemically similar to calcium and migrates to the bones, where it can become a permanent part of the bone. Anyone doubting all this should Google “Navajo uranium mines” and read the horror story of what happened to the uranium miners, who produced the raw material for nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 60s.

Almlie states that this waste is no more dangerous than a granite countertop in your kitchen. This might be true for the original solid rock 10,000 feet underground, which has not been crushed and concentrated. But the correct comparison to the material on the filters would be to pulverize the countertop and chemically concentrate the radioactive components, using the same brine and fracking fluid used in the field.

That would be a technologically enhanced countertop.

The filter socks that filter out and further concentrate most of the radioactive material should never be dumped in ordinary landfills and waste dumps, let alone abandoned buildings, old trucks or roadside ditches. The dried dust can be blown by the wind into the air and inhaled by people far from the source. Water percolating through filter socks can dissolve this material and then contaminate local aquifers providing drinking water for farms and towns. And once contaminated, there is no way to clean up an aquifer.

Almlie spends an inordinate amount of words complaining about the high cost of proper disposal and how this is costing the oil companies millions of dollars extra. Extra compared to doing nothing.

At a meeting with the North Dakota Health Department last year, Energy Industry Waste Coalition cofounder Darrel Dorgan stated it bluntly: “The purpose of the Health Department is public health, not the preservation of oil company profits.”

For decades the construction industry claimed that asbestos was perfectly safe, even though the industry’s own research showed it was deadly. Tobacco industry CEOs claimed under oath that tobacco was not addictive. The oil industry claimed for years that leaded gasoline was not harmful, and its scientists testified before Congress that lead in the air was not toxic.

Now, these same organizations want us to believe that low-level radioactive waste is no danger at all. After all, it’s all natural.

But state and federal laws require special treatment and disposal of radioactive material for a good reason: It is dangerous.

Heilmann is a board member of the Dakota Resource Council.