Radioactive Waste From ND Oil Production Shows A Pattern Of Hazardous Disposal Practices

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

Oil Drilling FacilityThe spillover costs of a booming oil bonanza seem to be bubbling up in North Dakota. History has shown when the race to acquire or control a new, lucrative product occurs, often safety, or environmental concerns lessen in importance, hazardous shortcuts are taken and laws sometimes ignored.

Officials in North Dakota reportedly discovered an unregistered radioactive waste dumpsite and another that reportedly had twice the material as was previously reported to a Canadian remediation company contracted for waste removal. Moreover, there have been several accounts of radioactive material being discarded as litter.

Radioactive SymbolAccording to the US Environmental Protection Agency, radionuclides are often present in petroleum extraction. Normally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) often include isotopes of Uranium, Thorium, and Radium (along with their decay products) as well as Lead-210. These elements have been known since the 1930’s and were in fact used as tracers to locate oil deposits, but it wasn’t until the mid 1980’s that the significance of these waste products were fully recognized and addressed. But it seems some of the regulatory mandates are being ignored, or in some cases inadequate to mediate hazardous practices of the some in the petroleum industry in North Dakota. Surprisingly federal regulation in this area is lacking.

The two disclosures highlight a growing problem from North Dakota’s booming oil development — illegal disposal of oil filter socks, which are tubular nets that strain liquids during the oil production process and contain low amounts of radioactive material. Health officials have said that radioactive filter socks increasingly are being found along roadsides, in abandoned buildings or in commercial trash bins — sometimes those of competing oil companies.

State Environmental Health Chief Dave Glatt said investigators are examining the new site north of Crosby — a town about five miles from the Canadian border — which was discovered late last week by Divide County Emergency Manager Jody Gunlock.

Hazmat Cleanup SiteGunlock said he found 15 garbage cans and about 25 bags full of the oil filter socks. “So maybe one-fourth of what we found down in Noonan,” Gunlock said, “But you know, it’s still a significant amount and it’s still an environmental problem.”

Glatt said the former landowner is in prison on an unrelated charge and that the new owner is cooperating with officials. They believe the waste was dumped before the land was sold, but has been covered up by snow for months.

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 have in the past, but roads are getting torn up and these new environmental problems increased drastically this winter, he said: “Between brine being dumped on the roads, human waste being dumped in farm yards, and now these radioactive socks — oh my gosh, it’s out of control.”

Waste PitBrine or saltwater is a byproduct of oil production and the sewage is because so-called “man camps” where some oil workers live cannot handle the amount of effluent.

Oil companies are supposed to haul filter socks to approved waste facilities in other states such as Montana, Colorado and Idaho, which allow a higher level of radioactivity in their landfills. State regulators said new rules are being written to track oil field waste, in response to growing environmental concern.

Crosby Mayor Les Bakken said allowing oil companies to dispose of the socks at an in-state facility would help decrease illegal dumping stating: “I do think if there was a disposal site closer, it would help.”

Confirmation of the new site came as a Calgary, Alberta-based company, Secure Energy Services, said it removed 45 cubic yards of radioactive waste Wednesday, more than double what was originally estimated, from what had been described in February as the largest dump found so far.

Robert Krumberger, the company’s manager of technical services who led the cleanup, said the lower level of the gas station was “completely full of filter socks.” The company was transporting the waste Thursday to an out-of-state facility for disposal.

Scott Radig, the director of waste manager for the state health department, said there is little danger to the public from the radioactive waste. “The only concern at those levels would be from ingestion or inhalation,” he said, but believed the soil had been contaminated yet needed laboratory results to confirm his belief.

The problems with the wastes through a short primer:

Much of the petroleum in the earth’s crust was created at the site of ancient seas by the decay of sea life. As a result, petroleum deposits often occur in aquifers containing brine (salt water). Radionuclides, along with other minerals that are dissolved in the brine, precipitate (separate and settle) out forming various wastes at the surface through petroleum extraction:

Mineral scales inside pipes
Contaminated equipment or components
Produced waters

Another concept is the Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (TENORM) which results from industrial manipulation of NORM through processes, waste, and those made from power generation.

The briney solution contained in reservoirs of oil and gas is known as “formation water.” During drilling, a mixture of oil, gas, and formation water is pumped to the surface. The water is separated from the oil and gas into tanks or pits, where it is referred to as “produced water.” As the oil and gas in the reservoir are removed, more of what is pumped to the surface is formation water. Consequently, declining oil fields generate more produced water.

Oil Rig CasingsWhile uranium and thorium are not soluble in water, their radioactive decay product, radium, and some of its decay products are somewhat soluble. Radium and its decay products may dissolve in the brine. They may remain in solution or settle out to form sludges, which accumulate in tanks and pits, or mineral scales, which form inside pipes and drilling equipment.

The radioactivity of the NORM varies from region to region with those in Mississippi being higher than those in Midwest states. However this advantage in more northern states can be lost through the production process. As stated in the previous paragraph two factors can make the radioactivity level in formation level and holding areas. In open holding areas the heavy radioactive materials settle into a sludge as which builds up at the bottom and as scale within piping systems. If the spraying of brine into roads and fields as described in the news article is concentrated many radionuclitides are being disbursed into the environment. The amounts are a factor of the concentration and the chemistry of the NORM as it left the well.

The depletion level of the well itself is a concern. As the increasing amount of petroleum extracted lessens, that is as it begins to dry up, higher amounts of brine and other liquids are extracted in much higher proportions to the petroleum, compounding the waste issue.
A mitigating factor can be that brine stored at ground level can then be reintroduced back into the well for permanent storage.

The filter socks will have similar problems in that they are, by design, concentrators of scale and other petroleum contaminates. And the scattering of these is problematic. While it can be said the simple issue of a filter sock upon a desk presents only an immediate risk if ingested or inhaled, the release of these into the environment can lead to many other paths for contamination to plants, water systems, animals and individuals.

Artemisia Tridentata

Residences near facilities might be at higher risk:

Risks evaluated for members of the public working or residing within 100 meters of a disposal site are similar to those of disposal workers. They include: direct gamma radiation, inhalation of contaminated dust, inhalation of downwind radon, ingestion of contaminated well water, ingestion of food contaminated by well water, and ingestion of food contaminated by dust deposition. Dust can result from the depletion of the holding areas where sludge becomes dry and granular.

Risks analyzed for the general population within a 50 mile radius of the disposal site include exposures from the downwind transport of re-suspended particulates and radon, and exposures arising from ingestion of river water contaminated via the groundwater pathway and surface runoff. Downwind exposures include inhalation of re-suspended particulates, ingestion of food contaminated by deposition of re-suspended particulates, and inhalation of radon gas.

Individuals working inside an office building inadvertently constructed on an abandoned NORM waste pile also face the threat of radiation exposure. Potential risks assessed for the onsite individual include exposures from direct gamma radiation, dust inhalation, and indoor radon inhalation. There are also risks from Alpha and Beta decay.

One could ask how long it might be until the radioactive contamination remains in the soil or the local environment if not property remediated and stored. A concept of half life and decay chain is important. Half life, basically, is the amount of time in which half the amount of a given radioactive element will be reduced to another form along the decay chain. The decay chain is the steps an element will reduce in a cascade of transitions to other elements until a stable element is reached. Some states are very short, lasting milliseconds, others for eons. Here is a chart of such a decay chain for Uranium 238.  (Simplified as numerous short lived Daughter Isotopes have been omited.)

U238 Decay Chain

Another hole in the system is that regulations slip through loops in the regulatory oversight between federal agencies and state. NORM is not federally regulated in the United States. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has jurisdiction over a relatively narrow spectrum of radiation, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has jurisdiction over NORM. Since no federal entity has implemented NORM regulations, NORM is variably regulated by the states. This variation leads to issues where unscrupulous contractors can take advantage of weaker state penalties and mandates from states having less experience and resources than the federal government to regulate these practices.

While the State of North Dakota is certainly making a bona fide effort to address the issue, the need to capture more petroleum during these bonanza days should not leave century or millennial contamination costing orders of magnitude more than a tank of gas, or bucket of gear oil can offer in the short term.

By Darren Smith


Yahoo News
United States Environmental Protection Agency

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

24 thoughts on “Radioactive Waste From ND Oil Production Shows A Pattern Of Hazardous Disposal Practices

  1. Excerpt:

    At a deserted gas station in a remote North Dakota town, local officials recently found the latest example of the shale-oil boom’s unintended consequences: hundreds of garbage bags filled with mildly radioactive waste.

    These bags (pictured), which were discovered late February in Noonan, N.D., contained what are known as “oil socks”: three-foot-long, snake-like filters made of absorbent fiber that the shale-oil industry uses to capture silt from waste water resulting from hydraulic fracturing.

    Days earlier, a similar trove had been found on flatbed trailers near a landfill in Watford City — which, like Noonan, is located in the state’s sparsely populated westernmost reaches where the Bakken oil shale formation lies.–fr … tive-waste

  2. Darren – you realize how barren and unpopulated that area of ND is, right? That is why the Crosby mayor is saying there should be an instate facility to handle the waste. God knows there is enough BLM land to dump it on.

  3. Paul,

    ……” God knows there is enough BLM land to dump it on.”

    That is the problem, the nuclear waste is just being dumped. Radioactive isotopes have half lifes in tens of thousands of years and needs to be disposed of in a controlled manner to minimize the risk of water pollution and airborne dust particles.

    One reason the proposed Keystone Pipeline is going through the US and not across Canada is because the better informed Canadian citizens don’t want it on their land. Maybe North Dakota residents don’t want this highly dangerous nuclear waste ‘dumped’ in their State.

  4. Wayne – if you have seen the driving scenes in Fargo, that part of ND is the same x10. The population density is very low, really really low. The man-camps built for the oil workers has pushed the population up some, but not that much. And according the the BLM, that is federal land. Not sure why ND residents would not want the waste on federal land. :)

  5. The first jury verdict against the fracking mania was handed down recently: “A jury in Dallas, TX today awarded $2.925 million to plaintiffs Bob and Lisa Parr, who sued Barnett shale fracking company Aruba Petroleum Inc. for intentionally causing a nuisance on the Parr’s property which impacted their health and ruined their drinking water.

    The jury returned its 5-1 verdict confirming that Aruba Petroleum “intentionally created a private nuisance” though its drilling, fracking and production activities at 21 gas wells near the Parrs’ Wise County home over a three-year period between 2008-2011.

    Plaintiffs attorneys claimed the case is “the first fracking verdict in U.S. history.” (DeSmog).

  6. Dredd – I am sure this is a long way from over. Many appeals to go. If I were the Parrs I would not start counting my money.

  7. Another view on the “booming oil bonanza” by a former BP official, now retired:

    A former British Petroleum (BP) geologist has warned that the age of cheap oil is long gone, bringing with it the danger of “continuous recession” and increased risk of conflict and hunger.

    At a lecture on ‘Geohazards’ earlier this month as part of the postgraduate Natural Hazards for Insurers course at University College London (UCL), Dr. Richard G. Miller, who worked for BP from 1985 before retiring in 2008, said that official data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), US Energy Information Administration (EIA), International Monetary Fund (IMF), among other sources, showed that conventional oil had most likely peaked around 2008.

    Dr. Miller critiqued the official industry line that global reserves will last 53 years at current rates of consumption, pointing out that “peaking is the result of declining production rates, not declining reserves.” Despite new discoveries and increasing reliance on unconventional oil and gas, 37 countries are already post-peak, and global oil production is declining at about 4.1% per year, or 3.5 million barrels a day (b/d) per year:

    “We need new production equal to a new Saudi Arabia every 3 to 4 years to maintain and grow supply… New discoveries have not matched consumption since 1986. We are drawing down on our reserves, even though reserves are apparently climbing every year. Reserves are growing due to better technology in old fields, raising the amount we can recover – but production is still falling at 4.1% p.a. [per annum].”

    Dr. Miller, who prepared annual in-house projections of future oil supply for BP from 2000 to 2007, refers to this as the “ATM problem” – “more money, but still limited daily withdrawals.”

    (The Peak of The Oil Lies – 7).

  8. Paul Schulte

    Dredd – I am sure this is a long way from over. Many appeals to go. If I were the Parrs I would not start counting my money.
    Jury verdicts are difficult to overturn:

    It is elementary that juries are the exclusive judges of the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be given their testimony. See 27 Tex.Jur. 415, Law and Fact, Sec. 6, Note 19 … it must be determined that there is no evidence on which the jury could have made the findings relied upon … all testimony must be considered in a light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is sought and every reasonable intendment deducible from the evidence is to be indulged in such party’s favor. Burt v. Lochausen, 151 Tex. 289, 249 S.W.2d 194.

    (Leyva v. Pacheco, 358 S.W.2d 547 (1962), Texas Supreme Court).

  9. Pat, I watched the Vimeo film. We had a commenter just a few days ago saying how much safer pipelines are than trucking. In the film they speak of the huge 21,000 barrel pipeline leak in ND. We hear about salt water and radioactive water being put back into the ground, farmers and ranchers being negatively impacted, crime and locals no longer affording to live there in rent. Where are the militias now? Was Cliven Bundy’s issues more egregious? These people were lied to and now are at the mercy of a state government that cares more for money than it’s citizens. BP isn’t about to cut into its profit to make things safer for the locals.

  10. rafflaw

    Just one more example why fracking is bad for everyone except the money counters.

    But for not as long as they think:

    “… a sustained decline in global conventional production appears probable before 2030 and there is significant risk of this beginning before 2020… on current evidence the inclusion of tight oil [shale oil] resources appears unlikely to significantly affect this conclusion, partly because the resource base appears relatively modest.”

    “Greater reliance upon tight oil resources produced using hydraulic fracturing will exacerbate any rising trend in global average decline rates, since these wells have no plateau and decline extremely fast – for example, by 90% or more in the first 5 years.”

    (ibid, quoting Dr. Miller).

  11. Dredd

    my guess is that being a corporation, Aruba will appeal, eventually lose, declare bankruptcy and their assets will just cover what they owe. not counting the Parrs.

    Bet the attorneys get paid though.

  12. Oil companies ( really all corporations) don’t have to follow the law and if some some wild chance someone says they do they will just engage in a little bribery oh I mean lobbying and it will be ok. No problem all legal now.

  13. A few months ago I attended a local Fracking seminar where two families from Williston, ND gave presentations. Their first hand account of how the oil industry destroyed their community and lives of many residents was horrifying.

    It wasn’t just the destruction of roads, increased crime, skyrocketing rents, incessant noise of hundreds of large trucks rolling through town, the thick dust, but the threats made against anyone who spoke out against these issues.

    These families made a decision to just pack up and leave rather than stay to face the inevitable onslaught from the rich and powerful oil industry. The fossil fuel industry can pretty much do whatever they want by simply buying off local politicians and any other regulatory agency that might get in their way.

    Laws and regulations mean absolutely nothing when facing the combined menace of money, power, greed and corruption.

  14. If President Obama approves the new Keystone Pipeline extension then yes I will say he and his administration were bought by the juggernaut called the fossil fuel industry.

    Obama promised to address the climate change issue facing our country and the approval of Keystone will be a slap in the face for many of us who voted for him. I’ve mentioned here before that I am very disappointed in his administration for a number of reasons; however, Keystone approval will demonstrate his weak leadership and lack of commitment to his ideals and promises.

  15. Nah, no need to most here understand. Did you know that some schools today will hire a person with an associates degree to teach?

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