WILLISTON, N.D. — A landfill north of Williston could soon become the first facility in North Dakota to accept higher levels of radioactive oilfield waste under new state regulations.
Secure Energy Services is seeking permits allowing it to dispose of radioactive material at its 13-Mile Landfill, which already accepts other types of waste generated by oil development.
The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality proposed a draft solid waste permit and radioactive materials license that would allow the facility to accept material with a radiation level up to 50 picocuries per gram. The limit went into effect in 2016 after the state adopted new rules raising the previous cap of 5 picocuries per gram. The change followed a study by a U.S. Department of Energy lab that looked at worker and public safety amid higher radiation levels. It was controversial at the time, drawing lengthy hearings and a lawsuit from environmental groups.
Low levels of radiation occur naturally in soil, water and rocks. When those materials are removed from the ground, like in oil and gas production, radiation can become concentrated in filter socks used to strain oilfield fluids, sludge at the bottom of storage tanks and scale that forms in well pipes, according to Environmental Quality.
That concentrated material is called Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material or TENORM, which is the type of radioactive waste Secure seeks to dispose of at its landfill.
Because no landfills in North Dakota are authorized to accept the higher level of radioactive waste under the new rules, TENORM continues to be trucked to disposal facilities out of state. At times, the waste has been found dumped illegally throughout western North Dakota.
If approved, Secure’s 13-Mile Landfill would ensure that at least some of the radioactive waste generated in North Dakota stays here, legally.
“At the end of the day, there’s a legitimate need,” said Kurt Rhea, corporate radiation safety officer and regulatory adviser for Secure. “This happens naturally, and somebody has to make sure the waste gets handled properly.”
How would the landfill operate?
Under Environmental Quality's proposed permits, Secure’s landfill could accept up to 25,000 tons of TENORM per year.
The vast majority would come from the company’s other North Dakota facilities that handle oilfield waste, Rhea said. Those sites separate out solids from oil and saltwater and inject the brine underground. Some of the solids contain TENORM, which is currently trucked to facilities in Montana and Idaho for disposal.
If Secure is allowed to accept TENORM at its 13-Mile Landfill, workers will need to screen each truckload of waste. They will use a device similar to a Geiger counter to detect radiation levels, state environmental scientist David Stradinger said.
The landfill has two options for handling waste suspected of having a radiation level higher than 50 picocuries per gram, he said. Secure could reject it outright, in which case it would go back to the company that generated the waste. That company would have to dispose of it at a facility in another state that accepts a higher limit. Or, Secure could temporarily put the TENORM in a quarantine area and send a sample to a lab approved by the state for further testing.
Waste that falls under the 50-picocurie-per-gram limit would be placed in the landfill, which must be lined under procedures spelled out by Environmental Quality. Every day, the TENORM must be buried by 1 foot of cover material such as clay soil or other waste accepted by the landfill.
“It makes sure that everything is covered up,” state solid waste program manager Diana Trussell said. “We’re protecting so we don’t have to worry about dust or any water running off it.”
A leachate collection system would capture precipitation or other water that enters the landfill. The liquid would get pumped to two new storage tanks. From there, trucks would take it to an injection well for storage underground. A surface impoundment pond also would be in place at the landfill for use in emergencies.
Environmental Quality will require the facility to regularly report information about the waste it accepts. The site also would receive monthly inspections by staff in the department's solid waste program, as well as quarterly inspections by the state’s radiation control program, Stradinger said.
Several instruments would measure radiation levels, including air monitors upwind and downwind of the landfill area, and the facility also would have to comply with leachate and groundwater monitoring requirements.
If ever radiation levels were to spike, Environmental Quality would step in.
“They would not be able to accept any more TENORM waste until the situation could be evaluated,” Strandinger said.
Rhea said Secure will operate “in full disclosure.”
“Nothing happens in a vacuum,” he said.
Landfill workers that handle TENORM waste will undergo training and each will wear a dosimeter, which is a badge that will track their radiation exposure over time.
Rhea said he does not anticipate the dose of radiation experienced by workers would ever reach limits set by the state, which he considers conservative.
“The regulations are so stringent,” he said. “I would build a house on this landfill and have my grandkids live with me. I know radiation, and I’m telling you, there is just no risk here.”
The proposed solid waste management permit for Secure’s landfill is set to expire in three years, at which point the company could seek a renewal.
When an area with TENORM becomes full, workers would have to bury it at least 10 feet underground, topping it with barriers made of clay and soils. Environmental Quality is requiring the company to continue to monitor the site for 30 years after it’s permanently closed.
Landowners, environmental groups weigh in
The chair of the board of supervisors in Blacktail Township, where the landfill is located, said he’s OK with the facility accepting TENORM given that the waste’s radiation levels are relatively low.
“We met with Secure when they first proposed that,” Dave Truckner said. “They’ve been very good to deal with.”
Others, however, have concerns.
Darrell Dorgan, founder of the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, said he worries that runoff from landfills that accept TENORM could contaminate waterways.
“If you allow one, then you’ll have 15 to 20 in the next four years,” he said.
Dorgan's coalition or other environmental groups might challenge the project in court, he said. The coalition, along with the Dakota Resource Council, sued the state several years ago over the TENORM rule-making process.
Secure’s application to dispose of TENORM is one of two before Environmental Quality. The department also is reviewing a request by WISCO at its landfill west of Williston, Trussell said.
Environmental Quality is accepting public comment through Sept. 9 on the permits for Secure’s 13-Mile Landfill and will hold a public hearing Aug. 27 in Williston. The application went through several rounds of modifications to address deficiencies identified by the agency.
Trussell said that by issuing the draft permits, the department is saying it feels the company has met all necessary requirements. The opportunities for public comment will allow the agency to hear any local concerns, she said.
It’s taken more than three years since the state’s TENORM rules went into effect for a landfill to get this far in the permitting process.
“Anytime we see new regulations come in like this, we want to make sure we are doing our due diligence,” Trussell said. “It doesn’t do any good to rush with it and go, ‘Oops we made a mistake.'”
Secure also needs to obtain approval from one more entity: Williams County.
A county spokeswoman said the landfill will need an amendment to its conditional use permit before it can accept TENORM. The matter must first go through the county’s planning and zoning commission before it comes up for a vote by county commissioners. The full commission is expected to discuss the issue at its next meeting, on Tuesday.