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Radioactive waste discovered at abandoned gas station

NOONAN, N.D. — Authorities are investigating the discovery of radioactive waste piled into an abandoned gas station in this small Divide County town.

The waste consists of hundreds of bags of “filter socks,” oilfield waste that contains naturally occurring radioactive material.

Jody Gunlock, emergency manager for Divide County, received a tip Feb. 28 about the materials in the building, which he estimates has been abandoned at least 20 years.

“It is about ready to fall down,” Gunlock said.

When Gunlock and representatives from the sheriff’s office and state Department of Health got in the building, they found hundreds of trash bags containing filter socks throughout six rooms of the gas station.

At about five times the radiation level of natural background soil in the area, the socks registered at twice the radiation of the filter socks discovered stockpiled near Watford City last month, said Scott Radig, director of waste management for the Health Department.

There isn’t a public safety risk if no one roots around in the building, which will be fenced off and properly cleaned up.

“Stay out and it’s no threat to you,” Gunlock said.

Radig said the radiation level is low enough that it can be shielded by just a piece of paper or clothing.

“It’s really only an issue if you inhale those particles or ingest them, so if people stay out of the buildings,” it’s safe, he said.

Gunlock said he’s putting notifications in the local paper to warn people to stay away from the site, and that eventually the Health Department wants a chain-link fence up.

“In my opinion — and of course it’s my opinion — this was deliberate,” he said. “There was no attempt to store this stuff. My feeling is that they deliberately put this stuff in an abandoned building rather than dispose of it properly.”

Local residents are concerned about the potential hazard posed by the waste, particularly because the building has a dirt floor and the spring thaw is beginning, Divide County Sheriff’s Deputy Zach Schroeder said.

“We’re pretty upset,” he said. “It’s contamination.”

According to county records, the building is owned by Kenneth Ward or his wife, Schroeder said. Ward is a fugitive wanted on felony larceny charges who escaped law enforcement custody in Wyoming.

Schroeder said investigators are trying to contact the building’s owner. If they can’t, they will figure an alternative way to get the waste cleaned up, Schroeder said.

State health officials already sped up their timeline on new rules to track oilfield radioactive waste, spurred by events like this and a similar discovery near Watford City last month. There, hundreds of the socks were piled onto flatbed trailers at a rural residence. Soil from the site had to be removed.

Gunlock said this incident raises questions.

“You can pick any county in our state, and same thing with all the oil-producing counties, and there’s abandoned old farmsteads and graineries and old houses that no one ever goes up and checks in.”