North Dakota recently discovered piles of garbage bags containing radioactive waste dumped by oil drillers in abandoned buildings. Now, the state is trying to catch up to an oil industry that produces an estimated 27 tons of radioactive debris from wells daily.
Existing fines have apparently not been enough to deter contractors from dumping oil socks — coiled filters that strain wastewater and accumulate low levels of radiation.
“Before the Bakken oil boom we didn’t have any of these materials being generated,” the state’s Director of Waste Management Scott Radig told the Wall Street Journal. “So it wasn’t really an issue.”
The state is in the process of drafting rules, out in June, that require oil companies to properly store the waste in leak-proof containers. Eventually, they must move these oil socks to certified dumps. However, North Dakota has no facilities to process this level of radioactive waste. According to the Wall Street Journal, the closest facilities are hundreds of miles away in states like Idaho, Colorado, Utah, and Montana.
Even though it is illegal, contractors have taken the occasional shortcut to dump the oil socks in buildings, on the side of the road, or at landfills. And the rate of dumping incidents has been on the rise as drilling activity has increased in the Bakken shale region, according to one North Dakota Department of Health study. Dump operators now even routinely screen garbage for radiation.
If things don’t improve, oil drillers may risk turning parts of the state into EPA Superfund sites, which would mean a long and expensive clean-up.
North Dakota’s oil activity has delivered a string of bad news for the area that disrupts the rosy portrayal of the state’s economic growth. The oil boom has brought along with it more frequent oil and wastewater spills, skyrocketing rent and homelessness, as well as drug addiction and STDs.