Legislative Committee Derails Radioactive Oil Waste Rules Years In The Making
Protections Are Impeded Despite Overwhelming Public Support
April 29, 2020
HELENA, Mont. - Members of an interim legislative committee, the Environmental Quality Council, voted yesterday to “object” to a nearly final draft of rules that would guide the disposal of radioactive oil waste in Montana. The committee is composed of 12 legislators and 4 public members.
The current rule draft is the product of nearly eight years of work by members of the public, a stakeholders group, and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. The protections were expected to go into effect this spring.
The rules were crafted to match rules governing radioactive oil waste in North Dakota, where the vast majority of the waste dumped in Montana originates. North Dakota currently has no landfills permitted to accept radioactive oil waste. Montana presently has one operating landfill, Oaks Disposal, located outside Glendive. Sites in Missoula, Plentywood, and Culbertson have also been granted permits for radioactive oil waste, while a proposed facility for the Sidney area is currently on hold.
To date, the rulemaking process has included six rule drafts, three public comment periods, four public hearings, and comments and testimony from thousands of eastern Montanans. Despite this, members of the Environmental Quality Council noted their lack of knowledge about the rules and commented that they “should’ve been informed” about the process.
“It’s a slap in the face to have a handful of legislators who have never thought about this issue for more than the length of an afternoon jump in at the last minute and block the protections we’ve worked for,” said Laurel Clawson, a member of Northern Plains Resource Council. Clawson lives and ranches in Plentywood, near a permitted site for radioactive oil waste disposal.
One of the most relevant rules is the “radioactivity limit,” which determines the maximum level of radioactivity that landfills are allowed to accept. Montana’s proposed radioactivity limit is 50 picocuries per gram, identical to the rules in North Dakota.
Lawmakers who voted to reject this draft questioned the need for Montana to have protections as strong as North Dakota’s. Some legislators suggested that Montana should consider quadrupling the level of radioactivity allowed in North Dakota, from 50 to 200 picocuries per gram.
“This is not a game to us,” continued Clawson. “This is about our livelihoods, the futures of our ranches, and our ability to protect ourselves as property owners and Montanans. What an insult to all the work we’ve done, and to the thousands of Montanans who’ve weighed in on this issue.”
The Environmental Quality Council called a special meeting to discuss the proposed radioactive oil waste rules. The topic was initiated by Senator Mike Lang (R-Malta), Vice-Chair of the committee.
The meeting was held over a Zoom video conference with numerous technical difficulties. Members of the public were provided the wrong access link and had to wait nearly 30 minutes to receive the correct link. The meeting began much later than publicized. (A full recording, including the half-hour delay, can be viewed here.)
In discussions preceding the vote and public testimony, members of the committee were unable to clarify what process their “objection” would trigger moving forward. They noted that if a majority of the committee voted to object, the issue would be taken up at a future meeting but were unable to specify a final timeframe for future action.
Unless the "objection" is withdrawn at the council's next meeting, the rules will be delayed at least six months. The future of the current draft is uncertain.
During public testimony, the only comments in favor of quadrupling Montana’s radioactivity limit and delaying the rules came from the Montana Petroleum Association. All others who commented spoke in support of achieving parity with North Dakota and protecting Montana from becoming a dumping ground for oilfield waste. Many who testified pleaded with legislators to respect the years of hard work already undertaken.
Council members who voted to protest the rules, leaving the future of these protections uncertain, are as follows:
Rep. Jim Keane (D-Butte)
Senator Mike Lang (R-Malta)
Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Libby)
Rep. Theresa Manzella (R-Hamilton)
Rep. Kerry White (R-Bozeman)
Senator Cary Smith (R-Billings)
Senator Gene Vuckovich (D-Anaconda)
Scott Aspenlieder (public member, Billings)
John Brenden (public member, Scobey)
Matt Vincent (public member, Butte)