Montana ranchers worry new radioactive waste rule isn’t enough

Every day, radioactive waste is trucked from the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota to rural communities outside the state, where it is disposed of, often without local residents knowing exactly what it is that’s being buried underground. For years, North Dakota wouldn’t grant permits for disposal sites within its borders, and although that’s beginning to change, the extraction industry still ships the vast majority of its waste to western states with less stringent environmental permitting laws — states like Colorado, Idaho, and, especially, Montana, home of the Oaks Disposal Landfill outside of Glendive, where nearly 233,000 tons of radioactive waste has landed since the site opened in 2013.

Last month, Montana finally proposed a statewide rule for handling oilfield waste, but the ranchers and farmers who live in the area, and who have been fighting for better environmental protections, think the proposed rule leaves them deeply vulnerable.

“Unfortunately, the [Montana] Department of Environmental Quality’s new rule only requires annual groundwater monitoring that’s self-reported from the site operator,” says Seth Newton, a Glendive-area rancher and a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, an advocacy group that has organized farmers and ranchers to push the DEQ to regulate the waste. He and others in his community fear that their groundwater — vital to livestock, crops, and people — could be contaminated if there’s a leak in the liner that separates the waste from the groundwater below. At its closest point, that water lies just 15 feet below the liner, according to an environmental assessment completed by the state. “Doesn’t DEQ care about us enough out here in eastern Montana to send out one of their people to test the water a few times annually?” asks Newton.

As the proposed rule stands, it’s up to the company that owns Oaks — Buckhorn Energy Services of Colorado — to submit a groundwater sample and analysis, arranged by the company, at least semiannually, though DEQ could eventually cut the minimum requirement to once a year.

But while ranchers in the area are concerned that putting the company in charge of testing presents a conflict of interest, Ed Thamke, who runs the Waste and Underground Tank Management Bureau at Montana’s DEQ, says he expects that Buckhorn Energy Services will hire an engineer or an environmental consultant to take samples and assess the findings based on methods approved not only in Montana but across the country.

According to Thamke, the disposal site is essentially a landfill and the toxic materials are typically solid — not liquid — and thus not apt to quickly leak out in the event of a tear in the lining, which itself is extremely sturdy, he says. If any liquids do collect, he points out, they’re siphoned off through a special collection system and either taken to a specially designed well or recirculated to the top of the solids to soak back in. Once a site is full, it will be capped with multiple layers of geotextile fabric, gravel, topsoil, and other protective barriers, according to the environmental assessment completed by the DEQ before granting permission to build the facility.

Thamke also insists the material stored at the facility isn’t nearly as dangerous as some of the public outcry has suggested. “It’s natural for the mind to go, ‘Oh, man, this is nuclear waste, this is toxic, this is really bad stuff’ … but I want people to know this isn’t Yucca Mountain,” he says, referring to the controversial (and currently idle) proposed nuclear-waste storage facility in Nevada. Thamke notes that the half-life of naturally occurring radioactive waste — like the kind extracted in oil and gas operations — is much shorter than that of nuclear waste, though specific numbers depend on the kind of radionuclide in question.  

“We really do genuinely listen,” says Thamke about complaints from ranchers like Newton, despite the fact that it took the agency three years to respond to the request for a statewide oilfield waste rule. “I grew up on a ranch. I’m a country guy. I get it. So I’m sorry if they feel that way, but it’s certainly never been our intent and I don’t think it’s been our performance, either. But our resources are stretched thin, and we have a variety of priorities.”

An apology is little comfort to Newton, who told FERN that there was no warning before the landfill opened in 2013. At the height of the oil boom, some 100 trucks a day were dropping off waste at the site, he says. He and several other members of his community wrote a letter to the DEQ asking it to draft environmental rules for oilfield waste. At the time, Montana had none, and the federal EPA doesn’t regulate oilfield waste, thanks to the agency’s 1988 ruling that the oil and gas industry is exempt from hazardous-waste provisions under the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The radioactive material found in oilfield waste comes largely from hydraulic fracturing, which injects water into the ground at high pressure, bringing naturally occurring radioactive material to the surface. According to the EPA, the radioactivity released by fracking is relatively low-level, but the contaminated water and mud — along with equipment like the “filter socks” used to strain material out of the water — have to be stored in disposal facilities like Oaks.

Newton isn’t just nervous about radioactivity, though. “Radioactivity is a hot-button word that gets a lot of attention, but I think it’s kind of a distraction because there are other contaminates in oil waste that are potentially even more dangerous,” he says. Benzene, for instance, which has been linked to leukemia, and hydrocarbons, which pose serious neurological risks and are potentially carcinogenic.

Newton also worries about what might happen during a flood, when some of this material could conceivably wash away. So far there haven’t been any incidents, but at the very least, he and others in his community want to see more frequent third-party inspections at the Oaks facility.

Ali Davis, another member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, who previously worked as a toxic-waste inspector, finds it hard to believe that one day the liner — the only barrier between the waste and the groundwater — won’t fail, given that the plan is for the waste to sit there indefinitely. “There is going to be a legacy for this facility and for the area, especially if [the waste] is irresponsibly [handled],” he says. “But even if it’s responsibly placed, one of these days that stuff is going to go somewhere.”

As rural communities in many states across the West consider their future with oilfield waste and the oil and gas industry in general, many are facing the same issues as Montana. The battle for environmental protections can be protracted and often ends in compromise. “It’s been a really defeating, demeaning scenario the way we’ve been treated,” Newton says about the three years he and others in his community pushed the DEQ to draft regulations. “It feels like they’re really looking out for the out-of-state waste generators rather than the local guys who have been here for generations.”

Three other oilfield waste facilities in Montana are in various stages of the permitting process — none have been built yet — so for now Oaks is the only one receiving waste deliveries. The public comment period for Montana’s proposed oilfield waste rule ends Oct. 18.