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Larry J. Heilmann, Published August 04 2013

North Dakota doing little about radioactive waste

North Dakota has a radioactive waste problem. I didn’t know this until a few weeks ago when the Bismarck Tribune published an article by Lauren Donovan. I am sure most North Dakotans still don’t know. It is not a subject that state government informs citizens about.

I attended a meeting between the North Dakota Health Department and The Dakota Resource Council to learn the extent of the problem and just what the state is doing about it. I learned a lot, but the results were not encouraging. The state is doing as little as possible and in some cases actually not enforcing the laws.

Naturally occurring radioisotopes in rock layers of western North Dakota become concentrated in salt water and brine that is associated with oil, and comes to the surface with it. This water and associated solid material is supposed to be filtered and the filters disposed of in properly certified low-level radioactive waste dumps, the nearest of which is in Colorado.

This is not news. It has been known to the health department for years, if not decades. The state has laws regarding this waste, and the health department has written regulations to implement those laws.

The problem is that the laws and regulations are not being enforced. An honor system of waste disposal appears to be in effect.

Radioactive filters have recently turned up in landfills, roadside ditches and industrial sites in western North Dakota. The Williston landfill has turned away trucks attempting to illegally unload waste there. What happened to the waste they were carrying is unknown. The health department has no idea how many filters are out there, where they are or, most importantly, where they are being disposed of. They have no idea how much radioactive waste is being produced in North Dakota or what percentage actually reaches Colorado for proper disposal. What is worst is that the health department is apparently expending no effort to learn these things.

Most landfills do not even know how to identify radioactive waste and have probably accepted truckloads of filters. How many are in ditches is unknowable. Trucks carrying the filters are not marked with the proper toxic cargo labels.

Instead of starting to enforce the law, the department has proposed a study of the problem to see if new laws and regulations are necessary. While the state has billions of dollars in surplus money, the budget situation at the department is apparently so dire that they don’t have the money for a minor study like this. They have asked the North Dakota Petroleum Council, whose members are the chief culprits in the problem, to participate and provide money for the study – an open conflict of interest.

Chickens are disappearing from the North Dakota henhouse and the state has hired Reddy Fox Consulting to suggest solutions. The study would also be open-ended with no set completion date. Therefore, enforcement of current laws would not commence until next year or the year after or etc.

We do not need new laws. We need enforcement of the laws already on the books.

One of the speakers at the meeting, Darrell Dorgan, put it best. The purpose of the health department is to protect the health and welfare of North Dakota’s residents, not to maximize the profits of the oil industry.


Heilmann lives in Fargo.