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Radioactive waste and Missoula’s aquifer
Guest column

Radioactive waste and Missoula’s aquifer

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The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has drafted proposed rules governing disposal of low-level radioactive waste known as TENORM (pronounced T-norm). TENORM stands for Technically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material. The proposed rules would go into effect by early 2020 and impact the Missoula Valley directly.

TENORM is produced through human activities that aggregate and concentrate naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) in the environment. Nuclear power, weapon and medical wastes are excluded. Oil and gas E&P (exploration and production) muds, oils, brines and contaminated equipment are included.

TENORM of immediate concern in Montana is the radioactive waste generated in North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield. North Dakota does not permit landfills to accept the TENORM, so hundreds of thousands of tons have been trucked to Montana to Oaks Disposal landfill near Glendive owned by a Colorado-based company. Lacking federal regulation, TENORM disposal has become lucrative.

DEQ-proposed changes would quadruple the radioactivity level of waste that licensed Montana landfills can accept at the gate — from 50 picocuries/gram to 200 picocuries/gram. This impacts the Glendive landfill as well as proposed landfills near Plentywood and Culbertson and the existing Missoula landfill which is already approved to accept TENORM but hasn’t accepted any yet.

DEQ held two public hearings on the proposed rules. The Sept. 26 Billings Gazette reported that about 70 residents attended an emotional Sept. 24 hearing in Glendive and called for stricter rules on radioactive waste. June Peterson’s ranch, homesteaded by her grandfather, is divided by a county road leading to the Oaks Disposal landfill. Peterson “questioned why Montana would propose less stringent rules, including accepting higher levels of radioactive waste, than neighboring North Dakota, a state largely responsible for generating the waste.”

At the Helena hearing Oct. 10, officials representing city and county governments in far eastern Montana expressed displeasure over slow and minimal state communication and coordination with local governments and emergency services. Speakers highlighted a train-truck accident in August that took the lives of a TENORM-hauling truckdriver and his passenger. Contaminated materials were spread across the tracks and ground. First-responders had no warning as to the danger, and hazardous materials cleanup was the charge of state offices 500 miles away.

Health hazards posed by TENORM aren’t primarily from brief exposure to the low-level radiation. The dose received isn’t high. Danger comes from inhaling radioactive material or ingesting it in drinking water. Then radioactive particles become absorbed and remain in body tissues. Leaking landfills thus present long-term groundwater contamination challenges.

However, proposed DEQ rules pass off state responsibility for monitoring and reporting compliance to landfill operators themselves. In Glendive, Oaks Disposal’s February report to the DEQ noted increased levels of chloride, radium-226 and radium-228 in groundwater monitoring wells that had occurred over a number of months since late 2018. The cause is still undetermined.

North Dakota, South Dakota and eight other states ban TENORM disposal. Nineteen states limit waste to 5 picocuries/gram for radium-226 and/or radium-228. Wyoming and a number of states place limits between 30 and 50 picocuries/gram for radium-226 and radium-228.

Previously, Montana DEQ limited TENORM disposal to 30 picocuries/gram. It was raised to 50 picocuries/gram. Now DEQ proposes quadrupling allowable entry-gate radioactivity to 200 picocuries/gram as long as the radioactivity level in the landfill remains below 50 picocuries/gram. Responsibility for monitoring, measuring and reporting radioactivity levels and leaks is the proposed role of landfill operators. DEQ’s role will be to read and/or file reports.

DEQ is accepting comments by mail, fax or email ( until 5 p.m. Monday, Oct. 21. Links to addresses, an online comment form and additional information are posted at:

Hal Schmid is a researcher, writer and educator based in Missoula.

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