North Dakota Health Department / AP

Second radioactive oil waste site found in North Dakota

Naturally occurring radioactive rock is brought up by oil and gas drilling, and is an increasing problem in boomtowns

North Dakota this week confirmed the discovery of a new radioactive dump of waste from oil drilling. And separately, a company hired to clean up similar waste found in February at another location said it had removed more than double the amount of radioactive material originally estimated to be there.

The twin disclosures highlight a growing problem from North Dakota's booming Bakken oil development, and for other oil and gas operations across the country: the illegal disposal of radioactive material from drilling sites.

Rocks deep in the earth contain naturally radioactive material, and when those rocks are drilled for oil and gas the drilling equipment and water can become slightly irradiated. As more drilling occurs across the nation, experts warn of a brewing crisis of leftover radioactive materials.

Health officials have said that radioactive filter socks — tubular nets that strain liquids during the oil production process — and other waste are increasingly being found along roadsides, in abandoned buildings or in commercial trash bins, sometimes those of competing oil companies.

The Bakken shale formation, one of the United States’ most productive oil fields, is not the only area experiencing the problem. Environmentalists say that anywhere deep oil or gas drilling is taking place — especially in new hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" boomtowns in places such as Pennsylvania and East Texas — communities are struggling to deal with an ever-increasing amount of low-level radioactive waste.

In North Dakota, state Environmental Health Chief Dave Glatt said investigators are examining the new waste site north of Crosby, a town about 5 miles from the Canadian border. The site was discovered late last week by Divide County Emergency Manager Jody Gunlock and confirmed by the state on Thursday.

Gunlock said he found 15 garbage cans and about 25 bags full of oil filter socks.

"So [it’s] maybe one-fourth of what we found down in Noonan," Gunlock said, referring to the city where the previous waste site was found in February. "But you know, it's still a significant amount and it's still an environmental problem," he said.

Gunlock, who grew up in Divide County and moved back in 2012 after serving in the military for 30 years, said the oil boom has changed his once quiet hometown for better and worse.

The population has increased and businesses are faring better than they did in the past, but roads are getting torn up and new environmental problems increased drastically this winter, he said.

"Between brine [another potentially radioactive drilling by-product] being dumped on the roads, human waste being dumped in farmyards, and now these radioactive socks — oh, my gosh, it's out of control," Gunlock said.

Confirmation of the new site came as a Calgary, Alberta–based company, Secure Energy Services, said on Wednesday that it had removed 45 cubic yards of radioactive waste — more than double the amount originally estimated — from the site found in February and described then as the largest dump found so far.

The surge in oil and gas drilling in the U.S. has led many researchers and environmentalists to warn of a growing problem with radioactive waste disposal in various parts of the country.

This waste, which has relatively low levels of radiation, is essentially unregulated by the federal government. Many state laws were crafted before the U.S. experienced its most recent oil and gas boom, in the past decade. Some say the resulting loose patchwork of state laws is inadequate to protect the public from the amount of waste that is now created and is often disposed of in unlined landfills, and as brine on public roads.

“We are troubled by people drinking water that [could potentially have] radium-226 in it,” David Brown, a public health toxicologist with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, told Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal backed by the National Institutes of Health. “When somebody calls us and says, ‘Is it safe to drink our water?’ the answer is ‘I don’t know.’”

Several states are looking into changing their laws. But until then, some say the problem will continue and could be far larger than currently known.

In places like North Dakota, where there is plenty of land and not too many people, the disposal of radioactive waste is “a wink-and-a-nod situation,” Darrell Dorgan, a spokesman for the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, told Bloomberg News. “There’s hundreds of thousands of square miles in northwestern North Dakota and a lot of it is isolated. Nobody’s looking at where all of it is going.”

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press


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