Cleanup Company Warns Parts Of North Dakota Could Soon Become Radioactive Waste Sites

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File

In this 2011 photo, Austin Mitchell walks away from an oil derrick outside of Williston, N.D.

An official at a national radioactive waste cleanup company has put out a warning for North Dakota oil producers: Clean up your act, or risk turning parts of the state into Superfund sites.

Joe Weismann, the radiological operations manager for U.S. Ecology Inc., told the Bismark Tribune on Sunday that the oil boom in North Dakota’s Bakken shale is unintentionally causing more instances of illegal dumping of oil-related waste, much of which is radioactive. Wiesmann cited two recent discoveries of radioactive “oil filter socks,” one time hoarded in an abandoned gas station in Noonan, and another time spilling off of trailers outside Watford City.

The dumping of oil socks — radioactive nets that strain liquids during the oil production process — could result in extremely expensive cleanups from the Environmental Protection Agency, Weismann said, and might force the agency to deem the sites Superfunds under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.

Though it’s hard to disagree that illegal dumping of oil socks is a problem, not everyone agrees that that “impending Superfund” is an accurate description of what’s going on in the state. As the EPA states, Superfunds are abandoned contamination sites that require long-term cleanup. At this point, it’s not known to what extent, if any, there is groundwater or soil pollution from the instances of oil socks dumping.

“Unless people are burning or burying filter socks, I am guessing the industry is capturing 90 percent-plus of filter socks,” Kurt Rhea, manager of environmental services at clean-up company Secure On-Site Services, told the Tribune. “If we weren’t, I think we would be seeing lots more incidents than we have to date.”

North Dakota is, however, seeing more incidents of radioactive waste dumping than it has in the past. In the last decade, the state has quickly risen to the second-largest oil-producing state in the country, inevitably increasing the amount of radioactive waste that must be disposed. North Dakota’s Department of Health in 2013 commissioned a study to look at the rising tide of drilling waste containing naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM), and found that oil socks have been increasingly showing up in trash loads over the last two to three years, as drilling in the Bakken and Three Forks formations continues.

To date, it hasn’t looked like the actual oil companies have been directly responsible for the illegal dumping. The discovery at the abandoned gas station in Noonan, for example, is thought to be because of one guy — a felony fugitive named Ken Ward, who likely did independent work for the oil and gas industry. State officials suspect Ward contracted with an oil company to dispose of the oil socks, then just left them in the abandoned building.

North Dakota officials do acknowledge that increased radioactive waste dumping is a problem, and have committed to developing waste regulations that would enhance the state’s capacity to track the generation, storage, transportation and disposal of radioactive material from the oil and gas industry. Those regulations are not out yet, though a draft of proposed rules is anticipated to be released by June 2014.