WATFORD CITY, N.D. – Officials here are calling on the state to take action after a stockpile of oilfield waste was discovered in rural McKenzie County dripping crude oil and other contaminants onto the ground.
“Hopefully this is the golden opportunity for the state to stand up and set a precedent that this will not be tolerated,” said Rick Schreiber, director of the McKenzie County Solid Waste Department. “Let people know that enough is enough.”
Schreiber reported the waste to state officials late last week after a neighboring resident sent him photos of the waste known as filter socks piled on two flatbed trailers in rural McKenzie County.
Filter socks, which look like large tube socks and are used in saltwater disposal wells to filter out the solids, contain naturally occurring radioactive material. The waste cannot be accepted at municipal landfills and it often contains radiation levels that require it to be hauled out of state.
The North Dakota Department of Health is investigating and could assess fines as a result of the investigation, said Scott Radig, director of the Division of Solid Waste.
Health inspectors did not count the number of filter socks on the trailers owned by RP Services of Riverton, Wyo., but Radig said he believes it’s the largest volume of the waste the department has encountered at one site.
“The health department takes this sort of case seriously and we are actively pursuing the investigation,” Radig said.
McKenzie County Commission Chairman Ron Anderson said county officials may pursue action if it’s not addressed at a state level.
“We can’t let this one go,” Anderson said. “This is totally unacceptable. Any county would bring the world down on people that do this.”
The waste was not handled properly, but it did not pose an immediate risk to the public, Radig said.
A field reading showed that the level of radioactivity was about twice as high as the natural background reading, Radig said.
Health department inspectors directed RP Services to transfer the waste to containers so it was no longer leaking onto the ground, Radig said.
The company will be required to submit a plan to health officials for the proper disposal of the waste and will be required to work under the supervision of health officials to clean up the contamination on the ground, Radig said.
Calls to RP Services seeking comment were not returned Monday.
The Environmental Protection Agency had been notified of the McKenzie County incident, but the agency is not responding, a spokeswoman said.
Montana allows special waste landfills to accept waste with higher radiation levels than is allowed in North Dakota. A facility near Glendive, Mont., opened last year and takes some waste from North Dakota. Other companies send the waste to states such as Colorado, Idaho and Texas.
Some operators will attempt to sneak the filter socks into municipal landfills to avoid paying the transportation cost, said Schreiber, who said the McKenzie County landfill discovered 985 illegal filter socks last year.
McKenzie County implemented a $1,000 fine for each filter sock discovered in its landfill. RP Services is one of the companies that been fined, Schreiber said.
On Saturday, McKenzie County Emergency Manager Jerry Samuelson was called to investigate two trash bags of filter socks that were tossed along the highway not far from the RP Services site. But officials don’t know who that waste belongs to, he said.
“There again, it’s an ongoing saga,” Samuelson said.
The health department has contracted with Argonne National Laboratory to study the risks of the naturally occurring radioactive material, or NORM, generated in the oilfield. The results of the study are expected this summer and could lead to new rules on the material.
“In general, we don’t want the public handling the socks or these materials, but actually how risky it is, we’re not sure,” Radig said.
One possible new rule could include tracking the filter socks “from cradle to grave” to ensure they’re disposed of properly, Radig said.
The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources also is studying the possibility of injecting the solid waste deep underground.
Schreiber said while the radioactive waste would only be harmful after a long period of exposure, the “blatant” violation of state regulations and the contamination that leaked from the trailers is what has local officials upset.
“Anybody would look at that would say, ‘Holy cow, that’s not right,’” Schreiber said.