Groundwater Contamination Near Montana Radioactive Oilfield Waste Dump Inspires Outrage Among Community Members

Northern Plains Members Demand Accountability For Weak Radioactive Oil Waste Disposal Rules

Above: Oilfield workers remove discarded filter socks which get contaminated by radioactive materials and prepare them for disposal in a landfill. Photo by Bruce Farnsworth.

This post first appeared in Northern Plains’ newsletter. Written by Caitlin Cromwell.

ONE SEPTEMBER NIGHT in Glendive, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had a rough evening. Agency staffers had journeyed out to Glendive for the first of two public hearings on DEQ’s draft radioactive oil waste rules.

These rules, when finalized, will govern the management and disposal of radioactive oil waste in Montana. Only one landfill in Montana currently takes this type of waste—Oaks Disposal near Glendive—though three others have been permitted to accept it (two remain unbuilt, while the fourth, Missoula’s Republic Services, has not yet taken any radioactive oil waste).

“I’m so sick of hearing about coffee grounds and banana peels. Last I checked, banana peels aren’t full of human carcinogens like benzene.”

Testimony of Dena Hoff, Northern Plains member from Glendive, on the misleading talking points used by industry regarding low levels of radioactivity found in everyday items.

Earlier this fall, Northern Plains and landowners around Oaks Disposal learned about contamination in the groundwater around Oaks Disposal. The landfill’s most recent monitoring report, written by a third party and submitted for reporting to the DEQ back in February, said:

• “Significant increases in chloride concentrations were observed” in water samples collected at two monitoring wells, and again in verification resamples.

• “The sum of radium-226 and radium-228 was well above the groundwater standard” at another monitoring well.

Needless to say, Northern Plains members were concerned—and had questions.

“Is there any science to your proposed radioactivity limit of 200 picocuries per gram? Wouldn’t it be wiser and more prudent to set guidelines that are more restrictive than not?”

Testimony of Bruce Peterson, Northern Plains member, Glendive

At the Glendive hearing on September 24, 70 people filled the room, ready to hear answers. Not only did they wonder about the contamination, they also wanted to ask why DEQ was proposing to quadruple Montana’s radioactivity limit. A move like that would position eastern Montana as North Dakota’s dumping ground forevermore.

Glendive member Seth Newton spoke up that night. He asked DEQ directly, “When did you learn about the groundwater contamination at Oaks, what have you done about it, and when were you planning to tell landowners in the community?”

DEQ staff stared back, blankly. “Ground water contamination?”

Seth named and dated the report. “It’s even stamped ‘DEQ’ on the top of it,” he added.

The staff looked nervously at one another and stuttered several half-sentences. Finally, DEQ staffer Rick Thompson said, “I’m not tracking on that.”

You could’ve heard a pin drop. At that moment, the collective anger in the room shot through the roof.

“I’ve been asked why should I care? I feel we are caretakers of this land, and should make it better or at least not worse for the next generation. When it comes down to a choice of clean water or money, I will choose clean water every time.”

Testimony of Annie Feist, Northern Plains member, Glendive

For the rest of the night, DEQ heard no end of it. In testimony after testimony, incensed eastern Montanans excoriated the agency and its proposed rules. Testimony included pointed criticism of DEQ’s indifferent or incompetent oversight, its eagerness to raise Montana’s radioactivity limit and position us as North Dakota’s dumping ground, its inability to answer questions substantively, its failure to make eastern Montanans feel heard—everything was on the table.

Check out WORC’s report on radioactive oilfield waste disposal No Time To Waste.

Read more stories about oil and gas here.

Learn more:

Federal Response to Oil and Gas Bonding Leading Toward an Orphaned Well Crisis

Still Waiting for DEQ Rules at Montana’s Radioactive Dump

Oil and Gas Wastes Are Radioactive! Why Doesn’t the EPA Care?

methane flare near oil wells

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