The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) last week published draft rules to oversee the disposal of radioactive oil waste in the State of Montana.
Northern Plains Resource Council members, many of whom are farmers, ranchers, and landowners whose water could be affected, have urged the state of Montana to develop protective rules for more than four years. Northern Plains is a Montana-based conservation and family agriculture organization.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Seth Newton, a rancher in Glendive and a spokesperson for Northern Plains. “I live and ranch downstream from Montana’s first radioactive oil waste disposal facility, and my operation relies on water. If we lose that, we’re finished.”
“This is DEQ’s opportunity to do it right. There are still concerns that need to be addressed to protect our water and our livelihoods.”
Montana became a destination for radioactive oil waste in 2013, with the construction of Oaks Disposal Facility, 26 miles northwest of Glendive. Oaks is a Major Class II Disposal facility, and has accepted more than 253,000 tons of radioactive oil waste for disposal to date, mostly from North Dakota.
The oil and gas industry enjoys an exemption from federal hazardous waste standards. To address that gap, states like North Dakota and Colorado have instituted their own protections to address transportation, management, and disposal of oil and gas industry wastes. On Friday, Montana finally followed suit.
“We’re glad to see rules in writing,” said Newton. “Northern Plains members and ranchers like myself have been pushing the DEQ to do this for years.”
One highlight of the rules is the inclusion of drill cuttings, drill mud, and hydraulic fracturing sand. Inclusion of these materials is noteworthy because it’s not the case in all states that regulate radioactive oil waste, and it means that the DEQ has deemed them potentially toxic enough to merit additional protection.
“Including those materials in the rules means the state of Montana is taking ownership of them, and not just turning a blind eye to the fact that they’re being disposed of in my backyard,” Newton said.
But the proposed rules also leave much to be desired. “Unfortunately, the Department of Environmental Quality’s new rule only requires annual groundwater monitoring that’s self-reported from the site operator. 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?”
“Over here in eastern Montana, we’re out-of-sight, out-of-mind. For decades in Colstrip, DEQ failed to inspect, address, or crack down on the toxic leaking ash ponds. We need to ensure something like Colstrip doesn’t happen here. This water is worth protecting, our livelihoods are worth protecting.”
“And when they don’t have any provisions in place to deal with flood events - which do happen every few years out here despite this current drought we’re having -- I worry. We should be able to expect these facilities to withstand a 100-year flood event, and I think it’s fair to want confidence in that. These are wastes that are both radioactive and full of hydrocarbons, after all.”
Two additional radioactive oil waste disposal facilities have been granted licenses to operate in Culbertson and Plentywood, but neither has begun construction. A fourth radioactive oil waste disposal facility that would be outside Sidney is currently in the licensing process.
“These rules aren’t just for us here in Glendive” said Newton. “They’re for the whole state.” The DEQ’s rules would apply to all radioactive oil waste disposal facilities in the state, and ensure each facility has high standards for siting, design, construction, operation, and management.
“I’m hoping that the Department of Environmental Quality will take my concerns, and those of my neighbors, into effect when they work on updating and finalizing these rules. The draft they put out on Friday is only a starting point, so I have some level of hope for improvement.”
The DEQ will be accepting public comment on the rules until Oct. 18. Public hearings are scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Sept. 7 in Helena in the Metcalf Building, Room 111, and 7 p.m. Sept. 20 in Sidney at the MonDak Heritage Center.