This handout photo from the Three Affiliated Tribes shows radioactive filters illegally dumped on the Fort Berthold reservation.
Much of the radioactive waste generated in North Dakota’s oil fields is now required by law to be transported to specialized landfills in other states, a costly chore for the oil industry.
North Dakota’s health department, however, is considering giving the industry a break by raising from 5 to 50 picocuries the radioactivity threshold above which waste must be ferried out of state.
The likely net result: a lot more radioactive waste buried in the state.
The state’s health department and oil industry contend that the waste that would fall within the 50-picocurie limit is not hazardous, and can be buried safely in specialized landfills with structures and procedures aimed at containing the higher levels of radioactivity.
That was confirmed in a study that the Argonne National Laboratory did in December for the health department. It found that dumping of waste with up to 51 picocuries per gram would likely expose people living nearby to levels of radioactivity far below what is considered safe.
The state’s radioactive refuse arrives in the form of rocks, silt and water mined from underground in the search for oil and gas. The muck is filtered through “socks” that are hauled away for disposal. It’s been estimated that the industry produces about 27 tons of the socks per day.
But it’s a fact that the earth itself is radioactive, to varying degrees. Coffee grounds can register 30 picocuries, a granite counter top 30 to 40, and phosphate fertilizers 400, said Dave Glatt, the state’s chief of environmental health.
“It didn’t make much sense to keep [the threshold] at five when in some cases the background radiation is greater than that,” he said. “We are aware of a lot of materials that are being disposed of on a daily basis that are more than five. We thought we needed a more realistic standard. That’s why we proposed moving it to 50.”