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Vol. 18, No. 49 Week of December 08, 2013
Providing coverage of Bakken oil and gas

ND grapples with waste

Industry, regulators try to determine what to do with all the oil field dregs

Maxine Herr

For Petroleum News Bakken

With county officials in North Dakota reluctant to approve special waste landfills, oil companies are forced to haul waste to neighboring counties or out of state.

In July, McLean County commissioners rejected a proposal to transform a former coal ash pit into a landfill for oilfield waste. In November, Mountrail County officials denied two special waste landfill requests and put a moratorium on landfills for a year.

“Because of that moratorium, now Mountrail waste has to go to Williams, Dunn or McKenzie county landfills,” said Lynn Helms, Director of the state’s Department of Mineral Resources. “In the case at McLean County, they acted on fears of NORM so it wasn’t a real well-informed decision.”

NORM, or naturally occurring radioactive material, is found throughout the earth’s crust and can be concentrated in oil and gas recovery processes. It is found in sludge, drilling mud, water filtration socks and pipe scale. North Dakota has a NORM limit of 5 picocuries of radium per gram at its special waste landfills. North Dakota Petroleum Council spokeswoman Kari Cutting said there have been misconceptions and even exaggerations about what NORM is and how it is disposed.

“It would have been helpful to have knowledgeable, science-minded people at the McLean County commission meeting to give an education to everybody and calm their fears,” Cutting said.

Where does the waste really go?

Some of the public’s fears stem from reports of illegal dumping where some operators attempt to sneak high amounts of NORM contaminated waste into landfills. Williston landfill foreman Brad Sepka sees it at his site.

“They’ll take the (filter) socks and throw them in 5-gallon buckets and try to hide them,” Sepka said. “That’s probably the biggest problem we have right now. A lot of these people we’ve rejected don’t want to do it the right way, so they’ll just go throw them in someone’s dumpster in the alley, and then it comes out on our garbage trucks.”

There currently are no laws or rules requiring operators to report where each load of waste is disposed. Scott Radig of the N.D. Department of Health waste management division said that is something the state may consider changing, but they are starting with a study to assess the risks of NORM in North Dakota. The agency has contracted with Argonne National Lab to determine if the 5 picocuries per gram limit is too rigid.

“We want to know the risks at the facility that’s generating it on the well site,” Radig said. “We want to figure out whether going higher than 5 picocuries can be safely done.”

Raising the limit

Chris Kreger, the manager of Indian Hills Disposal, a special waste landfill in McKenzie County, hired his own consultant to study the NORM risks and found that the waste stream could have 100 picocuries of radium per gram and not affect human health or the environment.

“That study was based on planting the person in the middle of a landfill 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for his entire life and it would still not present a health risk,” Kreger said. “I just don’t see how it is reasonable to apply a drinking water standard to a waste stream that goes to a landfill for disposal,” Kreger continued. “I think with more studies that acceptance level will go up.”

To put it into perspective, two bananas contain more than 5 picocuries of radium per gram. Coffee grounds and granite countertops each contain 27.

Despite the industry’s efforts to educate the public about NORM, Helms doesn’t expect another landfill to be approved until further studies are done.

Pursuing a safer option

Meanwhile, his office is expecting permit applications for injecting the waste into disposal wells. Companies are looking at the Dakota formation, where currently Class II disposal wells inject saltwater. Another option is to go deeper, into the Mission Canyon formation. Each formation has its unique attributes so treatment before injection will vary.

“There are two paths to pursue,” Helms said. “For the Dakota, they intend to grind it into small particles and dilute it with lots of saltwater. Whereas Mission Canyon has deep carbonate formations that are fractured, so the solids can go into the fractures and the liquid goes into pore spaces. And being a carbonate, you can pump acid periodically to reopen those fractures or extend them.”

Companies would have to go through the hearing process to be approved for a special waste disposal treating plant, and if they wanted to take it the next step to inject NORM waste, it would require approval from the Industrial Commission as well as the Department of Health.

“There would be a lot of very careful review of this before anything could happen,” Helms said.

But Helms believes disposing of the waste into formations is the safest solution.

“We think the geology and geophysics here are ideal for deep well disposal,” Helms said. “We think our rules for construction and maintenance essentially eliminate the risk for groundwater contamination. I think the concept of permanently putting it back where it came from is the best possible concept.”



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ND cracking down on illegal dumping

With no rules in place to track oilfield waste in North Dakota, the industry and state are trying to determine the frequency of illegal dumping.

The North Dakota Petroleum Council, NDPC, in collaboration with the Department of Health, is starting an education campaign about managing oil field waste.

“The improper handling and potential illegal dumping of NORM (naturally occurring radioactive material) is greatly condemned by both the industry and the North Dakota Department of Health,” said Kari Cutting of the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

Cutting said NDPC assumed the companies who handle the material know what needs to be done, but have found that isn’t the case.

“We’re working on some education options,” Cutting said. “The Department of Health is sending out a letter to all saltwater well operators since that is the source of the filter socks that seem to be showing up in places they shouldn’t.”

Scott Radig of the N.D. Department of Health said his office receives rejection notices from landfills if a company attempts to dump any NORM above 5 picocuries of radium per gram. At that point, the department calls the company to find out where they will be taking the load, and the rest is on an honor system.

The Department of Mineral Resources is tracking some of the abuse by using money from the abandoned well site restoration fund authorized by the most recent legislature to clean up illegal dumping incidents.

“We’ll find out how much there is. I have two requests on my desk now,” Mineral Resources Department Director Lynn Helms told Petroleum News Bakken. “After we gauge this for a few months or a year, we may be asking for GPS tracking legislation. If it is a significant problem, costing a lot of money and doing a lot of damage, then we should step it up and start tracking these guys.”

The state is taking initiative to crack down on illegal dumping. The Department of Health has required waste haulers to be licensed as such. This makes them subject to criminal and civil penalties, and at risk of losing their license, if they are found in violation. Also, the week of Dec. 9 all Department of Mineral Resources field inspectors will begin training to learn how to evaluate, sample and analyze alleged illegal dumping incidents.

“We’re preparing so if you find someone that is the guilty party,” Helms said, “you’ll have everything you need to prosecute.”

—Maxine Herr