State Drafts Rules For Disposal Of Radioactive Oil Waste

Aug 22, 2017

For the first time ever, The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has published draft rules overseeing the disposal of radioactive oil waste in the state. But some conservationists say the rules don’t go far enough.

Ed Thamke of the DEQ says radioactive oil waste isn’t as bad as it sounds.

“I think it’s fairly natural, when people hear something like that, to think of nuclear waste and generally scary stuff. This is quite a few steps down from that," Thamke says.

The waste, which is the sludge that’s pulled out of the ground when companies are fracking or drilling for oil, is way less radioactive than nuclear waste. But it’s still considered a hazard, and in 2013, eastern Montana became a destination for dumping it.

However there were no statewide rules regulating how these dump sites, which are like landfills, took care of that waste. That changed on Friday.

"It actually put some teeth into the rules," says Seth Newton, a rancher and spokesperson with the Northern Plains Resource Council.

"Until now, it's just been a loose guideline and it's been really hard to interpret how things should be handled and what’s to be allowed and not allowed."

Seth Newton
Credit Northern Plains Resource Council

Newton lives a few miles away from the only operating dump site in the state, near Glasgow. He says the draft rules are a step in the right direction. They even include some materials that other states don’t consider toxic enough, such as drill mud and fracking sands. But it’s not all roses.

Newton says the draft rules don’t mention anything about what happens if there’s a flood at the dump site. And he doesn’t like that companies are in charge of testing their own groundwater for contamination.

"I see that as a conflict of interest, and I can’t understand why a third party, at least the DEQ, could come down to eastern Montana a few times a year to test the monitoring wells and inspect the site," Newton says.

Ed Thamke of the DEQ says they trust dump site operators to report results truthfully.

"It’s not the wild west," Thamke says. "These things are done according to an established procedure and protocol and it’s our job to make sure it’s done right and that’s what we have been doing for many, many years."

He says other state regulations and licenses ensure that these dump sites are secured from floods.

Montana is the latest in a string of states to regulate the disposal of radioactive oil waste, in part because the federal government doesn't regulate it.

Thamke says that makes sense.

"It’s a big beautiful country, and there’s a lot of differences from east to west and north to south, with regard to what this means to drill into the earth and the type of material that’s brought to the surface, so the federal government hasn’t jumped in on regulating because it really isn’t one size fits all."

The DEQ will be accepting public comment on the rules until Oct. 18.