Environment Council Puts Rules Limiting Radioactive Waste Back On Track


The Montana Environmental Quality Council has reversed course to let safeguards for disposal of radioactive waste go into effect.

The Department of Environmental Quality had proposed rules setting a limit of 50 picocuries per gram for TENORM waste accepted in Montana landfills. TENORM is naturally occurring radioactive material with technologically elevated radioactivity. TENORM comes to Montana mostly from the oilfield in North Dakota. The 50 pCi/gm level is consistent with science reports, North Dakota’s rule, a stakeholder work group, and over 2,400 public comments.

The proposed rules were about to go into effect when suddenly they were placed on the agenda of EQC for its April 2020 meeting. EQC sidetracked six years of citizen work in the DEQ rule making process. Apparently favoring a quadrupled radioactivity level of 200 pCi/gm, it voted 10-to-6 to file an objection to the proposed rules. The objection delayed the rules going into effect. Had EQC continued its objection at its May meeting, sidetracking would have become permanent derailment.

Richland County Commissioner Duane Mitchell had worked in the stakeholder working group for favorable rules. Commissioner Shane Gorder and Richland County Civil Attorney Tom Halvorson testified in Helena for consistency with North Dakota to prevent Montana from becoming a dumping ground for out-of-state TENORM and for notice to local government of TENORM spills for the safety of local responders. Commissioners Loren H. Young, Mitchell, and Gorder filed written public comments supporting public safety.

After six years of seesawing work, Richland County could support DEQ’s proposed rules. When EQC sidetracked the effort, the Commissioners worked intensively to move the proposed rules back onto the main track.

The Commissioners had Civil Attorney Halvorson prepare a 20-page “Backgrounder on TENORM Disposal Rulemaking,” documented with 70 footnotes to dispel misinformation given to EQC about what had happened during the rule making process and focus on the science of involved. The Backgrounder was distributed to all EQC members, EQC staff, DEQ staff, many news organizations, and others.

The Commissioners filed two public comments highlighting key information from the “Backgrounder.” They submitted letters to the editors of nine Montana newspapers informing the public and inviting participation. They filed a Freedom of Information request for communications between the Montana Petroleum Association and EQC.

Two editorials by Civil Attorney Halvorson were published in the Billings Gazette, The Montana Standard, The Roundup and the Sidney Herald.

Senator Mike Lang deserves credit for his actions in EQC’s May 27, 2020 meeting. He acknowledged the extensive work by many people over the long rule making process. He said most of the questions that existed in the April meeting had since been answered. This demonstrated a commendable openness to receive and genuinely consider new information. Sen. Lang moved to withdraw the objection. The Council voted 13-to-2 in favor of the motion, which means the objection is withdrawn and DEQ may proceed to finish the process of putting the rules into place.


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