By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
The 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.
According 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.
Gunlock 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.”
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
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.
While 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.
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.)
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
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