A heaping mound of black trash bags stuffed with radioactive nets that strain liquids during the oil production process — commonly known as “oil filter socks” — has been found in an abandoned North Dakota gas station, state officials confirmed Wednesday, in what may be the biggest instance of illegal oil socks dumping the state has ever seen.
Police last week discovered the illegally dumped oil socks piled throughout the old gas station building and attached mechanic garage in the small town of Noonan, state Waste Management Director Scott Radig told ThinkProgress. The bags were covered in a layer of dust, Radig said, meaning they had probably been sitting in the building for some time.
The 4,000-square-foot building is owned by a felony fugitive named Ken Ward, who Radig said likely did independent work for the state’s booming oil and gas industry.
“I suspect that [Ward] was doing contract work for some oil company and he told them he would — I’m sure for a price — take these and properly dispose of them,” Radig speculated. “He did it the cheap way, took the money and took off.”
The radiation found in oil socks is naturally occurring, Radig said, but winds up concentrating onto the socks during their filtration process. Like a small net, the socks are used when pumping oil field fluids to filter out anything companies don’t want to go through the pump, or down into an injection well.
North Dakotan soil has a limit of 5 picocuries — the standard measure for the intensity of radioactivity — of radium per gram of soil in order to be considered not radioactive. The oil socks, Radig said, are typically in the range of 10–60 picocuries of radium per gram. Though the bags haven’t been taken to a laboratory for examination yet, Radig said an initial reading showed that the oil socks were “above background, so they are slightly radioactive.”
Radig said the public would not be at risk of exposure unless they ventured over to the abandoned building and began opening the bags. Local police have secured the building with caution tape while they try to make arrangements with Ward’s family. If Ward’s mother — who Radig says has been paying taxes on the building — does not cooperate with cleanup, the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s oil and gas division will have to dip into a fund for cleaning up illegal dump sites. While some of the socks have serial numbers, Radig said it is not possible to track down who they once belonged to, meaning it will likely be either the property owner’s or the state’s responsibility to clean it up.
“The public really isn’t at risk, so from that aspect it’s not an emergency,” Radig said. “It is angering us in the Health Department here that people are doing illegal dumping, and I know people are very upset over it.”
People are upset because the incident is not the first time residents have been informed of illegal radioactive oil waste dumping in their immediate vicinity. In the last decade, North Dakota 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.
Radig said that the increasing problem has prompted the Department to develop 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. He anticipates having those proposed regulations drafted by June 2014.