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State Proposes Quadrupling Montana's Radioactivity Limit For Oilfield Waste


August 28, 2019 | View PDF

Billings, MT – The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) last week released an update to proposed rules guiding the disposal of radioactive oil waste in Montana.

Among the proposed changes is a quadrupling of Montana’s radioactivity concentration limit for materials entering waste facilities. The limit has been raised from 50 to 200 picocuries per gram of radium-226 and radium-228. North Dakota’s radioactivity limit is 50 picocuries per gram. 

“This increase to Montana’s radioactivity limit is unacceptable,” declared Laurel Clawson, a rancher in Plentywood and a spokesperson for Northern Plains. “Unless we achieve parity with our neighbors, Montana will remain a dumping ground for oilfield waste that North Dakota’s regulators have deemed too hot to safely dispose of in their own state. We need to get in line with North Dakota, and have rules that are as stringent as our neighbors.”

Clawson lives ten miles from a planned location for radioactive oil waste in Plentywood. Licensed in 2015, the facility has not yet been built.

Montana became a destination for radioactive oil waste in 2013 with the construction of the Oaks Disposal facility, 26 miles northwest of Glendive. Oaks remains the only operating landfill licensed to take radioactive oil waste up to 50 picocuries per gram in either Montana or North Dakota.

“I live downstream of Oaks Disposal,” said Maggie Copeland, a Glendive resident and spokesperson for Northern Plains. “We’ve been working hard to get rules for years. Frankly, I’m outraged at DEQ’s move to quadruple the radioactivity limit. It feels like an affront to all the time and effort landowners have put into this rulemaking.”

Waste from oil and gas exploration and production is exempt from federal oversight. To address that gap, states like North Dakota and Colorado have instituted their own protections to oversee the disposal of oil and gas industry wastes.

 Unlike North Dakota, Montana licensed four landfills to accept radioactive oil waste before creating rules to govern that disposal.

 The four landfills already licensed in Montana are: Oaks Disposal in Glendive, BAC Disposal in Plentywood, Clay Butte Disposal in Culbertson, and Republic Services in Missoula. The Plentywood and Culbertson facilities are not yet built, and the Missoula site has not yet accepted any radioactive waste.

 Last week’s proposal updates DEQ’s first draft of the same rules, published in August 2017.

“We’ve seen a few improvements since the first draft; things that DEQ is listening on,” recounted Copeland. “For instance, they’re now requiring groundwater to be monitored at these landfills by an independent, third-party scientist. Before, landfills could do their own water monitoring.”

“But there’s still a long way to go,” she added. “Why aren’t they required to do monthly inspections – like they do in North Dakota? And inspections should be unannounced.”

“We need DEQ to put pen to paper and make a commitment to show up for eastern Montana,” explained Copeland. “Not just turn up occasionally and review a few records.”

Clawson added, “I think there’s a perception on the part of industry that eastern Montana is just ‘empty space.’ But it’s not empty. Those of us who live and work here know that.”

She pointed out that, “Northeast Montana is more rugged and at the same time more ecologically fragile than a lot of other places. We rely on a couple inches of topsoil, timely rains, and the grace of God to earn our livelihoods. Good stewardship is the unspoken norm—as most of us recognize that everything we love about our way of life in inseparable from ecological health.”

“We’d just ask that landfills taking radioactive oil waste are held to the same standard of stewardship,” Clawson said.

“These rules aren’t just for us here in Glendive,” added Copeland. “They’re for the whole state.” The DEQ’s rules would apply to all radioactive oil waste disposal facilities in the state, and ensure each facility has high standards for siting, design, construction, operation, and management.

The DEQ will be accepting public comment on the rules through October 21. Public hearings are scheduled for September 24 in Glendive at the Glendive City Hall, and October 10 in Helena in Room 111 of the Metcalf Building.

Northern Plains is a grassroots conservation and family agriculture group that organizes Montanans to protect our water quality, family farms and ranches, and unique quality of life.


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