States Struggle to Address a Growing Problem
Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2014
By Arianne Peterson
North Dakotans are finding radioactive waste illegally dumped — in abandoned gas stations, in parking lots and on an Indian Reservation — thanks to the state’s booming oil and gas industry. The waste, including radioactively contaminated “socks” used to filter sediments out of wastewater, is part of the radioactive legacy of the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” process companies are using to extract oil and gas throughout the United States. North Dakota’s Bakken oil field alone produces nearly 75 tons of cancer-causing radioactive waste daily, according to a study by the Dakota Resource Council. And though the problem of illegal dumping has existed in North Dakota for at least three years, state officials have been slow to react with policy changes to protect public safety.
Fracking companies use a drill to cut horizontally through shale deposits, then send highly pressurized liquid streams to pulverize the rock. The process brings radium-contaminated liquids to the surface. As Nukewatch reported in the Summer 2013 Quarterly (“The Long-Lived Legacy of Fracking”), ingested radium acts like calcium in the body and can cause cancer, asthma, aplastic anemia (when blood cells are not replenished) and other health problems. With Congress’s 2005 exemption of the fracking industry from the Safe Drinking Water Act, radioactive liquid fracking wastes have been a major cause for concern among citizens and political representatives, and now the solid waste issue is becoming more visible as well.
According to the North Dakota Department of Health, the abandoned filters found spilling out of plastic garbage bags at a former gas station February 28 near Noonan registered at 40 microrems of radiation, or about eight times the area’s “background level.” With Congress granting the fracking industry several regulatory exemptions and the US Environmental Protection Agency claiming they don’t have enough evidence to say what level of radiation is safe, responsibility for regulating the fracking industry’s waste falls largely to individual state governments. It seems North Dakota has encountered the illegal dumping problem in part because it does have some (faulty) regulations in place, as its landfills have radiation detectors installed that can thwart industry’s attempts to dispose of waste that exceeds state radiation limits. The state penalty for illegal disposal is a $1,000 fine per sock filter, a price which has prompted the companies (or their contractors) to either truck the waste to states with fewer regulations or, apparently, find an out-of-the way location and illegally just toss it.
West Virginia’s state government on March 31 enacted a requirement that landfills install radiation monitors and build separate, lined cells for radioactive fracking debris. The law also raises the limit on the amount of fracking waste landfills are allowed to accept. Pennsylvania’s fracking companies sent 16,000 tons of radioactive material to landfills in 2013, and the state also allows the firms to bury some waste on-site in lined pits. Texas, which produces more oil and gas than any other state, has virtually no regulation on radioactive fracking waste disposal and no plans to revise its regulations, according to a state official interviewed by Bloomberg News. Companies in Texas may take their waste to a landfill, bury it on-site or mix it with soil near a well — provided its radiation levels are below a set standard.
North Dakota does not have any storage facilities capable of handling radioactive waste. Though the Dakota Resource Council and others had been pushing the state Department of Health to act on the illegal dumping problem for over a year, the state had not made an effort to track the disposal of the radioactive fracking waste at all before this year. After discoveries of illegal dumps gained more attention in early spring, the state passed regulations in April that forced the shale-oil industry to temporarily store the socks in sealed containers on-site at the state’s 500-600 injection wells starting June 1. What will happen to the waste next is unclear.
— McKenzie County Farmer, Mar. 4; ThinkProgress, Mar. 12; Wall Street Journal, Apr. 15; Bloomberg, Apr. 16; ProPublica, May 16, 2014