On Television: Talking Reform To North Dakota's Radioactive Waste Laws
The folks at RT Television asked me for an interview regarding proposed reforms to North Dakota’s regulations of NORM, or naturally-occurring radioactive material.
You can watch the segment and read the resulting article here.
Since material deep underground has certain level of radioactivity, the materials used in and brought up by oil drilling is also radioactive. There are a few dozen tons of radioactive material produced in North Dakota today, and the majority of it gets shipped out of state. Unfortunately, a few unscrupulous companies have dumped the material illegally here in the state. Filter socks, which have a low level of radioactivity due to their use deep underground, have been found stashed in trailers parked out in public or stuffed into abandoned rural buildings.
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]…yes, North Dakota wants to ease limits on “radioactive dumping,” but that’s because our current limits are so absurdly low that the law is routinely being broken by citizens all over the state who are throwing away perfectly harmless materials.[/mks_pullquote]
State regulators have taken action against those companies, and they’ve implemented new regulations such as a requirement for disposal containers at drilling sties, but they’ve also been looking for ways to make safe and lawful disposal of this material easier.
To that end, the State Health Department has proposed lifting the cap on radioactive materials from 5 picocuries per gram to 50 picocuries per gram (you can read the case they make for it here). Which is what RT Television wanted to talk about.
Since this is Russian state television, the presentation of the issue wasn’t exactly balanced (for obvious reasons, the Russians have an interest in promoting anything which makes oil and gas development in America harder). It was all about “big oil” wanting to ease restrictions on “radioactive dumping” of materials produced by “fracking,” and the motivation they describe for this is all about profits for the oil industry. But there are a number of problems with that narrative.
First, the State Health Department and not “big oil” is asking for these changes. The industry is supportive of the changes, but from what I understand it’s not going to have an impact on how the vast majority of operators go about their business. The larger companies will likely continue to ship their material to disposal sites out of state since they already have contracts to do so.
Which brings me to the second point. This isn’t really about economics for most of the oil companies in the state. The ability to dispose of this material in the state is probably the most benefit to the smaller companies operating here who have much smaller revenues. Again, the larger companies will likely continue to ship their material out of state.
Another point is that “fracking” is really neither here nor there in terms of this issue. It’s a hot-button term for environmental activists, but really radioactive material is produced by any sort of drilling. According to the EPA, “80% of our exposure to radioactivity is natural,” and one source of that exposure is drinking water from wells.
Finally, while the term “radioactive dumping” is technically correct, it’s also a hyperbolic pejorative. Currently, North Dakota’s limits on disposing of radioactive material are so low that bananas are very nearly over the limit. Things like granite countertops, red brick building material, kitty litter, and brazil nuts are absolutely over current limits as this chart published by the Health Department indicates:
So yes, North Dakota wants to ease limits on “radioactive dumping,” but that’s because our current limits are so absurdly low that the law is routinely being broken by citizens all over the state who are throwing away perfectly harmless materials.