The state’s role as host to radioactive waste has some residents concerned that it could lead to future health issues.
Since June, about half of all the oil-field waste generated by the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota has been sent to what some industry officials call a state-of-the-art facility in Montana that is reportedly capable of disposing naturally occurring radioactive material.
Although North Dakota does have landfills that accept oilfield waste, the state currently limits the amount of radioactive materials to no more than five picocuries per gram of radium. Montana, on the other hand, accepts waste that has up to 30 picocuries per gram. But the state’s role as host to radioactive waste has some residents concerned that the materials could lead to future health issues.
Ross Oakland, a farmer who has lived in Montana his entire life, is the owner of the new Oaks Disposal Services landfill. He told the Grand Forks Herald that he is proud of his business that “seems to be getting larger,” especially after North Dakota oilfield operators found out about the landfill.
According to a recent report, the Bakken oil development alone generates thousands of tons of radioactive waste each year. Oakland said that before his facility opened, all the waste that was in North Dakota was going to Colorado or Idaho, but now can be disposed of here, 40 miles across the North Dakota border.
Oakland told The Bakken magazine that he got the idea to create an oil field waste disposal facility about two years ago after talking to a drilling operator who complained there weren’t many waste-disposal facilities that had the ability to dispose of solid oilfield waste, which is created during the exploration and production process of oil and gas.
Now about 130 acres of Oakland’s property has been transformed into land that could be used to store radioactive materials, but so far only about 23 acres have been officially approved for oilfield waste disposal.
Oakland said he has enough capacity on his land to accept waste for about 14 years, which is about how long he anticipates it will take before his landfill reaches capacity at two million tons of waste.
According to Oakland, the facility has accepted about 95 percent of all oil-field waste brought to the landfill, such as drill cuttings, filter socks and pit liners, which are brought on trucks, 25 tons at a time.
The 5 percent of materials that have been rejected had a higher level of radiation than the facility could accept, so it was sent to other facilities in Colorado, since the Rocky Mountain state accepts waste that has up to 400 picocuries per gram of radium.
The new Montana facility also accepts non-hazardous industrial waste such as petroleum contaminated soils, spills, accident cleanups and car wash solids.
Although the facility was approved by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, some groups such as the Montana-based Northern Plains Resource Council, have expressed concern about the facility. But according to Rick Thompson, the department’s solid waste section supervisor, most complaints have been about increased traffic in the area.
Terry Punt is a rancher and a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council’s oil and gas task force. He told the Grand Forks Herald that in addition to traffic, many residents are concerned about the water supply being contaminated and radioactive materials contaminating air and dust in the area.
“It could be a nightmare, or has the potential to be,” Punt told the newspaper, adding that there is a need for more oversight since oil well blowouts and spills occur much more frequently than the public realizes.
According to a recently released report, since 2009, Montana has had more than 295 incidences of oil spills and well blowouts, 83 of which occurred in 2012.
“Montana keeps their spill records only on paper in the central office,” Punt told the Northern Plains News. “The lack of transparency is a major factor that enables limited enforcement and accountability.”
But Oakland told the Sidney Herald in Richland County, Mont., that part of the reason he created the waste-disposal facility was because as a former oil driller, he would prefer to see the waste disposed of properly. He said his landfill features a double liner, a leachate collection, and a removal system that captures moisture, and his land has monitoring wells that check the groundwater as well as a stormwater detention pond.
“We built it safe; we didn’t cut any corners. That is what all the oil companies wanted,” he said. “It’s a very, very safe, high-tech system.”
As far as concerns about water contamination go, Oakland said that he and his employees drink water from a well not too far from the disposal area, and that his family continues to live and farm on land adjacent to the landfill.
“I would never jeopardize something in our future,” Oakland said. “Money doesn’t mean that much to me.”