Radioactive Bakken waste gets a slew of new Montana rules 

Over the past five years, Montana has become a dumping ground for more than 253,000 tons of radioactive waste. Most of that waste originated across the North Dakota border, a byproduct of the Bakken oil boom contained in drill cuttings and filter socks. But its home is now some 25 miles northwest of Glendive, at the privately owned Oaks Disposal Facility.

Technically, the stuff is called TENORM—"technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material." While it's fairly common in the waste streams of the oil and natural gas industry, there are currently no federal regulations specifically addressing TENORM management. The EPA has historically left rulemaking to the states. As of Aug. 18, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality finally released proposed rules for TENORM management at sites like Oaks.

Ed Thamke, bureau chief for waste and underground tank management at DEQ, recognizes that TENORM can be a "difficult waste stream to imagine." People tend to get pretty excited when they hear about radioactive material, he says, but this particular kind of radioactivity is a natural feature nationwide—particularly in areas close to mountains. Issues kick in when it's brought to the surface through oil and gas drilling or water processing.

"The biggest confusion is people think it's nuclear waste, or it's toxic. It's none of those things," Thamke says. "It's non-nuclear waste. It's not the type of thing that a nuclear regulatory commission would care about, frankly ... But DEQ takes it seriously."

Thamke explains that TENORM can become a human health issue via two pathways: inhalation (think dust) or ingestion (drinking water). Though it's not directly regulated by the EPA, management of TENORM is accomplished to a degree through state and federal solid waste regulations, which apply to disposal siting and groundwater monitoring. Oaks is the only licensed disposal facility in Montana currently dealing with TENORM, and two other facilities have been licensed by the state but have yet to begin construction. Thamke says those license agreements cover TENORM management at each individual facility, but DEQ decided that statewide rules are warranted.

Seth Newton, a rancher near the Oaks facility and member of the nonprofit Northern Plains Resource Council, agrees. When Oaks first opened in June 2013, Newton says, the waste coming over the border from North Dakota was "really foreign stuff" for locals. At first, he adds, trucks hauling the material weren't even required to be tarped.

"Some really fair, easily interpreted, black and white rules would be a step in the right direction," Newton says. "I feel like we're just accepting this liability from North Dakota that they don't want."

With public comment open through Oct. 18, Newton hopes there's still time to press DEQ to revisit a few key details. Specifically, he wants air and groundwater monitoring responsibility in the hands of third-party consultants, not facility operators. "That's just not good enough," he contends.

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