Nukewatch Quarterly Spring 2015
By John LaForge
Radioactive waste produced by hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is making headlines all over gas land. The cover story of Nukewatch’s summer 2014 Quarterly reported some of the illegal dumping by fracking companies—on Indian Reservations no less—in North Dakota where a gigantic gas fracking boom is underway in the Bakken oil field.
National news coverage of the scandal led North Dakota’s legislature to consider changes to radioactive waste control law so that fracking’s contaminated wastes can be dumped in ordinary landfills.
One bill under consideration would permit fracking radioactive waste in state landfills to be contaminated with ten times the radioactivity that state law currently allows—as long as it’s covered with 10 feet of soil. The rad’ waste that’s not being haphazardly and illegally discard—no Victoria, nefarious dumping probably hasn’t ended—is now being trucked out of state at some expense.
House Bills 1113 and 1114—reportedly requested by the ND State Health Department—are being contested by some law makers and journalists who have questioned the right of the department to set its own rules.
The ND Newspaper Association and the ND Broadcasters Association complained that the bill eliminates requirements for public hearings and instead permits them “when appropriate” and even cancels public notification of the permitting process for disposition of radioactive materials.
Dave Glatt of the State Health Department told the Bismarck Tribune that the SHD commissioned Argon National Laboratory in Chicago to study the question and make recommendations. The department wanted to know “radiation limits that would be safe for workers and the public.” Glatt forgets that there are only legally permitted doses, no safe ones.
Radioactive isotopes that contaminate fracking industry waste and its machinery include radon, uranium-238, and thorium-232. According to the Health Department’s website, these long-lived pollutants come in six forms:
1) “Produced water,” which is injected underground but later brought to the surface as waste;
2) “Sulfate scales,” which are hard, insoluble deposits that accumulate on frack sand and inside drilling and processing equipment;
3) Sludge and “filter cake” solids of mud, sand, scale and rust that precipitate or are filtered out of contaminated “produced water.” They build up in waste water storage tanks and in “filter socks”;
4) Filter socks, contaminated by “produced water”;
5) Synthetic “proppants” or sand; and
6) Contaminated soil and machinery.
Locals are Worried
“We don’t want to have when this oil and coal is gone, to be nothing left here, a wasteland, and I’m afraid that’s what might happen” said Underwood farmer Gene Wirtz to KXNET News Reporter Ben Smith in January. Wirtz is worried about the increased radioactivity in local landfills. “Any amount of radiation beyond what you’re already getting is not a good thing,” he said to Smith.
A case in point came Jan. 6, 2015, when three-million gallons of waste water sprang from a North Dakota pipeline rupture, in Williams County north of Williston, the biggest ever in the current Bakken oil rush. Attempted containment of the leak was underway January 23 as berms were set up across Blacktail Creek to prevent the waste water from flowing into the Missouri River. The New York Times reported that the leaked waste water “may contain residue from hydraulic fracturing.”
“Potential for harm” called “no problem” by Forbes
Writing Jan. 26 in Forbes online, James Conca turned upside-down the results of a recent Pennsylvania study of the risks of radiation exposure from gas fracking wastes.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection studied so-called “Technologically-Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material,” or TENORM, and analyzed the levels of radioactivity associated with oil and gas extraction in the state.
Mr. Conca’s column was headed, “Radiation from Fracking? No Problemo.” And Conca wrote that the PDEP study found there is “no concern of radiation exposure from fracking wells for oil or gas.”
On the contrary, the PDEP study explicitly warns of increased radiation risk from various aspects of fracking. In particular, the PDEP report warned of:
• Limited potential for radiation exposure to the public and workers from the development, completion, production, transmission, processing, storage, and end use of natural gas;
• Potential radiological environmental impacts from fluids if spilled; and
• Little potential for radiation exposure to the public and workers from landfills receiving waste from the oil and gas industry.
The PDEP report recommended additional study of radiological impacts from the use of “brine” or “saltwater” waste, called “produced water” by the ND Health Dept., from the oil and gas industry currently used for dust suppression and road stabilization.
Although the Forbes article trivializes and distorts Pennsylvania’s findings, it did say this: “With 15 million Americans living within a mile from a fracking well, this is an important result.”