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Radioactive waste landfills becoming contentious issue

BISMARCK, N.D. — A special waste landfill in far western North Dakota will seek to dispose of radioactive waste, if it becomes legal.

Charles Slaughter, of Canada-based Gibson Energy, said his company plans to step up at its WISCO landfill west of Williston about 1 mile from the Montana line, The Bismarck Tribune reported.

“We will modify our permit to participate in that market,” said Slaughter, adding that his company has experience with radioactive material landfills in Canada, where 20 times higher than North Dakota’s proposed 50 picocuries is allowed. Currently, the state bans anything above 5 picocuries.

“The bottom line is it’s the right thing to do. You only have to go back to the mid ’70s and Love Canal to see what happens because there weren’t proper disposal techniques,” said Slaughter, whose operation is one of 10 licensed special waste landfills in the oil patch, where storage tank bottoms, dirty dirt from spills and leaks and drill cuttings are buried in lined pits. Another seven are in development.

The State Health Department is moving on new rules that will allow operators, such as WISCO, to dispose of radioactive waste, possibly later this year.

Scott Radig, the state department’s waste management director, predicts half the special waste landfill operators in the state will go into the radioactive materials business.

“I’ve just heard talk, nothing official, yet,” said Radig, adding that it’s too early to know for sure because companies can’t apply to modify their permit until the rules are in place.

Another Canadian-based company, Secure Energy Services, operates a special waste landfill north of Williston and three waste-processing sites in the oil patch region.

It’s also in the early application stages for a special waste landfill in Dunn County, south of Manning.

Secure Energy General Manager Kurt Rhea said he sees big obstacles with the Health Department’s rules, mainly to do with how radioactivity would be measured.

“If they can’t tell me exactly what’s acceptable, we’re not going to go ahead,” said Rhea, who characterizes the proposed 50 picocuries as a safe number, actually “crazy low.”

Rhea’s company consults with the state department on radioactive issues and is the primary collector of filter socks at hundreds of saltwater disposal wells. The filters concentrate naturally occurring radioactive particles from down-hole geology and are banned from disposal in North Dakota.

Related: ND officials investigating improper disposal of oilfield waste

Rhea said economics will play a role in which operators get into the radioactive waste landfill business.

The proposed maximum of 25,000 tons per year per landfill is not a big number, especially at a fee of $100 a ton or so, he said.

“That’s what, maybe $2.5 to $3 million, compared to what it costs to construct and other costs?” said Rhea, pointing out that liability and financial assurance insurance would take out a big bite of revenue.

There’s more money to be made processing radioactive waste as it does at its three plants in the oil patch and transporting it elsewhere, according to Rhea.

There are fewer than 20 waste-processing plants in the oil patch, which, on any given day, could have tons of radioactive material onsite being prepped for transport to states with approved landfills for radioactive waste.

For the most part, the tank bottoms and other materials measure between 9 to 35 picocuries, according to Gretchen Anderson, Secure Energy’s regulatory coordinator, so most of it could likely be disposed of in North Dakota under the new rules.

“We are a long ways from making a decision,” said Rhea, adding that it will come down to numbers.

The eight remaining special waste operators were also contacted for this story, but either no one answered or returned messages from the Tribune.

Darrell Dorgan, spokesman for the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, predicts that where these landfills are permitted will be a contentious issue in the oil patch for years to come.

“This is developing into the largest issue in western North Dakota — where they go and who gives the approval,” he said.

If a special waste landfill has an existing permit, it’ll be up to the health department to modify the operator’s permit. The department will issue notice, take comment for 30 days then decide, according to Radig.

Counties had to approve initial zoning, but there is no provision in state rules to restart the local zoning process if the landfill were to apply to handle radioactive waste, he said.

Counties could put that provision in place at the local level, Radig said.

In Mountrail County, zoning administrator Don Longmuir said its zoning rules for special waste were developed years before the Health Department proposed to add radioactive waste, so it doesn’t have such a provision.

Two landfills are in development now, he said.

“We’re not worried; we’re not sure what the Health Department is doing at this point. We don’t have the science to determine that. Therefore, we rely on the state,” said Longmuir, explaining that any local discussion about radioactive waste in local landfills would include the zoning board, county commission and state’s attorney.

In Dunn County, residents are facing the prospect of two special waste landfills.

Last week, 150 of them showed up at a county zoning meeting. They convinced the zoning board to reinstate local control, whereby 60 percent of nearby landowners would have to approve of a landfill prior to zoning.

The reinstated 60 percent policy will now go the Dunn County Commission for action before it can become final.

Curt Kralicek, of rural Manning, would live across the road from the special waste landfill proposed by Secure Energy Services. He spearheaded the move to reinstate local control — a provision removed in July — and said he was impressed with the overwhelming turnout.

“In my mind, it isn’t just the radioactive (possibility), it’s the whole picture. Radioactive waste is a concern, no doubt. There is a real concern about these special waste landfills that I don’t think is specific to any one item,” he said.


Information from: Bismarck Tribune, http://www.bismarcktribune.com

This article was written by Lauren Donovan from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


  1. Do it the right way thanks

  2. It’s gotta go someplace. Cool.

  3. So where is the picture from? Is the ND waste piling up in drums like that depicts?

    • David – this photo is from Getty Images via NewsCred. Due to copyright laws, we are limited on image selections but do try to to find as relevant photos as we can.

    • lol. I think we talked about this before. While stock photos are useful, this one gives people a very lopsided view of the problem.

    • Very true David – we have asked our audience to submit photos for articles, but haven’t received too many photos with a high enough resolution to use. None of the submitted photos would have been appropriate for this article.

  4. It’s another totally irrelevant picture that Bakken.com has a habit of using.

    • Eric – Due to different copyright laws as well as other influencing factors, we are limited to photo choices for articles and try to match articles with relating images – this is sometimes easier said then done.

  5. Shoot that stuff off into space don’t leave it here on earth

  6. Thanks for the lesson David I learn something on your comments