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 limitChris 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 optionMeanwhile, 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.”