Radioactive waste could be coming to western Montana
Guest column

Radioactive waste could be coming to western Montana


The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has drafted new rules and regulations to govern the disposal of technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material (TENORM).

TENORM waste is generated by fracking in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field and transported to Montana for disposal. The DEQ public comment period has closed and the proposed rules will be adopted by February unless the process is continued — this current draft being the third run at it. The rules do impact western Montana.

Disposal of TENORM waste has primarily been seen as an eastern Montana issue but it should concern western Montana residents too. Oaks Disposal landfill near Glendive has a permit to accept TENORM waste, but so does Missoula’s Republic Services landfill. (See earlier columns and articles from Sept. 8 and Oct. 11 for details.) Health risks from TENORM come when it is absorbed into body tissues after inhaling airborne particles or ingesting contaminated water.

North Dakota doesn’t allow TENORM waste disposal in North Dakota. According to the Grand Forks Herald, as fracking and drilling expanded in the Bakken, contaminated equipment, materials and sludge were shipped to Colorado, Idaho and Texas — states with nuclear weapons/research facilities and disposal sites. Then Ross Oakland, a driller turned rancher, created a private landfill near Glendive to accept TENORM waste in 2013. By 2015, Oaks Disposal had already accepted 253,000 tons.

Montana cannot specifically exclude “out-of-state” TENORM waste, but DEQ can set allowable limits through the permitting and regulation process. North Dakota is considering its first TENORM waste disposal permit for a landfill near Williston using the allowable radioactivity level DEQ previously used. However, the new DEQ proposal quadruples the allowable radioactivity level accepted at Montana landfills.

That brings us to Missoula. The Republic Services landfill is already permitted to accept TENORM waste but has yet to do so. That doesn’t mean it’s inconceivable. Oil railcars pass through Missoula regularly. BNSF rail lines crisscross North Dakota and the Bakken. Most rail-transported Bakken crude oil is shipped through Minneapolis and Chicago to the Northeast according to a 2014 Wall Street Journal article. West Coast shipments travel BNSF lines across Montana’s Hi-Line. But a considerable number of shipments pass through Missoula on Montana Rail Link (MRL) lines. MRL partners with BNSF. Their lines connect near Billings.

For many years, Republic Services has accepted out-of-county solid waste. Missoula is the final destination for all solid waste generated in Lake, Sanders, Mineral and Ravalli counties, along with some from Granite County to the east. From Flathead Lake to Lost Trail Pass, from Lookout Pass on the Idaho border to Drummond and Flint Creek Valley in the east — refuse is collected at transfer stations then transported to the Missoula landfill. Transporting TENORM waste from the Dakotas or eastern Montana by rail is not inconceivable in the future.

Missoula and neighboring county residents therefore need to be aware of DEQ rule changes and be involved in the process. Elected officials and state agencies have heard from citizens in eastern Montana but likewise need to hear from people in western Montana. TENORM waste disposal is a statewide issue.

Under the proposed rules, DEQ will rely on landfill operators to monitor and report air and water quality. In North Dakota, with Williston’s landfill permit imminent, Bismarck’s Fox affiliate KYRG-TV reported on Oct. 8 that TENORM has already contaminated water in eastern Montana. Increased levels of radium and chloride were found in wells around Oaks Disposal between 2018 and 2019. Reasons for the contamination have yet to be determined conclusively.

Hal Schmid is a researcher, writer and educator based in Missoula, and director of the Ma Hope Institute. 

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