Commissioners Fight to Keep Safer Radioactive Waste Disposal Rules


April 22, 2020

For four years, the Board of County Commissioners of Richland County (Duane Mitchell, Loren H. Young, and Shane Gorder) has been in the fight to protect us from the risks of radioactive waste material. The material is called TENORM, an acronym meaning "technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material." In our area, the very great bulk of this material is a solid waste produced in oil and gas development.

The agency that regulates disposal of TENORM in Montana is the Department of Environmental Quality. The DEQ began ordinary administrative rulemaking procedures in 2016 to establish rules regulating the disposal in Montana of TENORM waste. Its first set of proposed rules were far looser that neighboring North Dakota. That raised concern about attracting dumping of North Dakota radioactive waste at high levels of radioactivity.

A great deal of public comment was presented to the DEQ. The citizen participation persuaded DEQ to make a major rewrite. DEQ invited and received input from a great variety of people through a host of various channels. It truly became quite a process. Our Commissioners tracked it every step of the way and participated at the key moments when the process provides opportunity. The Commissioners made written comments. Commissioner Shane Gorder and I traveled to Helena to provide oral testimony before a DEQ hearings examiner.

The rewritten proposed rules were much better. We still asked for some additional improvements. The DEQ continued to listen and they made every change we requested. Some of the key changes we supported are:

• The amendment to establish a maximum disposal site acceptance concentration of 50 pCi/g for all TENORM waste, rather than 200 pCi/g.

• The amendment to establish a disposal site gate screening level of 100 microroentgen per hour (µR/hr), excluding background, rather than 200 µR/hr.

• The amendment to require that a TENORM waste management system stop accepting TENORM waste in the event the total effective dose equivalent (TEDE) contributed by the TENORM waste management system exceeds 100 millirem per year (mrem/y), excluding background radiation, for a hypothetical member of the public who is at the boundary continuously with no shield for a year, and to continue non-acceptance of TENORM waste until the exceedance has been remedied.

The Commissioners made the following statement in a written public comment dated March 2, 2020:

The Board agrees with the multiple rationales of the department for reducing the maximum acceptance concentration to 50 pCi/g and reducing the gate screening level to 100 µR/hr. The Board lays special stress on providing consistency with how neighboring states, particularly North Dakota, are regulating or plan to regulate TENORM waste. Richland County shares a border with the State of North Dakota. Interstate commerce between Richland County and North Dakota is vigorous. Allowing a maximum acceptance concentration above the 50 pCi/g that North Dakota allows would make Richland County a magnet for dumping hot loads from North Dakota suspected of being above the North Dakota maximum acceptance concentration. Reducing the maximum acceptance concentration to the same level as North Dakota helps prevent Richland County from becoming a target for dumping the worst TENORM waste.

The Department exhibited exemplary sensitivity to the safety interests of local government. For example, I requested an addition to the spill reporting requirements, as follows:

A person who spills TENORM waste and a person who transports TENORM waste for processing or disposal that is spilled for any reason during transport shall as soon as practically possible report the spill to the county coordinator of disaster and emergency services for the county where the spill occurs.

This will allow local DES to alert local government responders that they are responding to a TENORM area. Responders such as EMTs, fire fighters, deputy sheriffs, and DES personnel would have no other way of knowing since there is no requirement that TENORM be placarded in transportation. The Department listened, assimilated the comment and explanation, and they responded with an amendment to the proposed rules.

The Commissioners had everything going our way, but then suddenly this week, somehow an item got placed on the agenda of the Environmental Quality Council for April 27, 2020.

The agenda items says, verbatim:

2:10 p.m. Proposed radioactive waste rule

•  Background – DEQ

•  EQC options -- Joe Carroll, EQC attorney

•  Public comment

•  Questions/discussion – EQC

•  Committee action, if any

That is vague. What is happening, and how did that get onto the agenda? Talk to different people who have been involved these past four years and you will hear different answers. It looks like it could be an attempt by someone to derail the administrative rulemaking process, paralyze that process, and open Montana to new radioactive waste sites where hot loads of radioactive waste from out of state would be dumped, escaping the tighter regulations of the states where the waste originates.

It will be interesting and quite important to see how the hearing before the EQC unfolds this coming week. The Commissioners maintain their vigil and are still in the fight. They have filed a written public comment and have signed up for links to the video conference of the hearing that would let them make oral public comment should that become necessary.

Meeting materials are available on the EQC website at This meeting is open to the public. The meeting will be streamed live on and broadcast on the Montana Public Affairs Network (MPAN) if you wish to view only. An archived recording of the meeting will also be made immediately available on of the public may join the meeting. To participate, email the meeting owner [email protected] with your name and a request and you will be sent a calendar invite with instructions for joining and participating in the call by 5 p.m. the day before the call. A time will be provided for oral public comment on the agenda, at that time, members of the public who have joined may "raise their hand" and participate after being recognized by the presiding officer or the meeting host. Comments will be taken in order. Written public comment via email in advance of the meeting to [email protected] is also welcome and will be provided to committee members.

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