Radioactive oil waste study recommends uniform permitting; slurry wells a hot topic
Thursday, July 23, 2020

Oil patch counties, state officials and others should work together toward a uniform permitting process for radioactive oilfield waste disposal facilities, concluded the author of a new study commissioned by the Western Dakota Energy Association. 

Counties' zoning rules differ when it comes to the siting of such facilities, said Brent Bogar, a senior consultant with the firm AE2S Nexus, who spoke to the association's board about his findings Wednesday.

No landfills in North Dakota have received the necessary permits to accept radioactive material from the oil fields despite a change in state rules several years ago raising the acceptable radiation level. As a result, the waste is trucked to disposal sites in other states. Many proposals to establish facilities in North Dakota have received pushback from local landowners concerned about their safety and traffic, and county leaders often have numerous questions themselves. 

The waste is known as Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material or TENORM. Low levels of radiation occur naturally in soil, water and rocks. When those materials are removed from the ground, like in oil and gas production, they become known as TENORM. It's found in drill cuttings and wastewater, but it can be more concentrated in tank sludge, pipe scale and filter socks used to strain oilfield fluids, according to Bogar.

"We are, as far as I was able to find, the oily oil-producing state that does not have TENORM disposal within it," he said.

Bogar envisions consistent zoning rules for the landfills across the Bakken or a single permitting process at the state level that relies heavily on county input, instead of separate permits needed from the county and the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality. 

Environmental Quality has an extensive permitting process already, requiring that landfills receive both a solid waste permit and radioactive materials license to dispose of the material.

Bogar suggests that a group of legislators, county commissioners, state officials and other stakeholders form to discuss how the permitting process ought to look.

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