If you build it, radioactive waste will come
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If you build it, radioactive waste will come

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A line from "Field of Dreams" goes, “If you build it, they will come.” In Montana, the “it” could be landfills licensed to accept radioactive fracking waste from North Dakota. And now, in Montana, public participation in the rule-making process governing disposal of this hazardous waste just got derailed by Montana Petroleum Association and a few state legislators.

Waste-disposal rules for TENORM (Technically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material), being finalized by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) after more than five years and with public participation, were put on hold by an interim committee of the Montana legislature on April 27. The action impacts communities across Montana, including Missoula with its TENORM-licensed landfill.

The legislature’s interim Environmental Quality Council (EQC) voted 10 to 6 to object to — thus put on hold — DEQ rules governing disposal of TENORM waste. The rules were developed in a nearly six-year process, with public participation, at taxpayer expense. Yet, during April’s meeting, many EQC members appeared ignorant and uninformed of the issue and process followed — even confused — although the EQC has received information since 2014.

Subversion of this important work resulted from an effort by Vice Chair Mike Lang and an oil industry lobbyist who’s funded Lang campaigns. DEQ rules are now in jeopardy unless EQC members receive calls and emails from the public before the May 27 meeting when the issue is revisited.

Phone numbers and email addresses are posted at www.facingfuture.org/EQC.pdf. To attend or provide comments at the online meeting, contact Joe Kolman.

A comprehensive background report, including details from April’s meeting, was prepared by attorney Tom Halvorson for Richland County commissioners: www.facingfuture.org/Backgrounder.pdf.

TENORM results as underground radioactive material becomes concentrated in mud/sludge, oil and contaminated equipment during fracking and oil-and-gas exploration and drilling. The concern is waste generated in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field and transported to Montana for disposal.

North Dakota hasn’t authorized one landfill to accept TENORM waste. No county government in North Dakota wants it buried in its backyard. South Dakota doesn’t allow TENORM disposal either. Colorado puts stringent limits on it. Since 2013, the prime travel destination for North Dakota’s TENORM waste has been Montana. It gets a one-way ticket to our beautiful paradise, and it stays for life.

Or half-life. Radium-226’s half-life is 1,600 years. If inhaled or ingested in ground water, radioactive particles become absorbed in body tissues. Add this to any naturally occurring radon in the environment.

In August 2019, DEQ proposed quadrupling the radioactivity level licensed landfills could accept, from 50 pico-curies to 200 pico-curies. This met overwhelming public objection at statewide DEQ hearings: Montana was becoming North Dakota’s dumping ground. One voice favored elevated levels — Alan Olson of the Montana Petroleum Association. The public prevailed. DEQ returned to the 50-pico-curies level as they finalized rules.

Then came April’s EQC meeting. The sole agenda item, requested by Vice Chair Mike Lang, was the DEQ rules. Lang moved for a vote on an informal objection — to delay implementation. Olson, who directed oil-industry funding to Lang campaigns, spoke for a 200-pico-curies level. Factual misrepresentations created EQC confusion. While a multitude of public voices spoke against delay and for the rules, DEQ rule-making was derailed.

In February, Oregon Department of Energy found 2 million pounds of highly radioactive North Dakota fracking waste dumped illegally near the Columbia River. It was transported across Montana by rail during 2016, 2017, and 2019.

If Montana licenses landfills to accept high-level radioactive TENORM waste, North Dakota will send all they can produce. If we build and license sites, it will come. We can keep it for life.

Hal Schmid is a researcher, writer and educator based in Missoula, and director of the Ma Hope Institute. 

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