BISMARCK - Opponents of new rules that allow for disposal of oilfield waste with higher levels of radioactivity in North Dakota made emotional pleas to the State Health Council in a do-over meeting Tuesday, but the council ratified the rules it adopted a year ago while agreeing to study the issue further.
About 60 people attended the meeting in the Capitol's Pioneer Room, many holding up yellow signs stating "Vote NO on the increase" and "Public health over profits."
Susan Perry, 66, who lives between Williston and Alexander, not far from IHD Solids Management LLC's proposed disposal site that would accept the waste, raised concerns that it will decrease land values and pose a health risk to children playing outside.
"This is traumatic for us," she said, her voice quaking. "Not only are our lives in danger ... but we live in it constantly. Our kids live in it constantly."
The rules, which went into effect Jan. 1, allow disposal of oilfield waste with radioactivity levels of up to 50 picocuries per gram, 10 times the previous limit that forced companies to ship the waste out of state. The Department of Health has three applications under review for landfills that would accept the waste, known as technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials, or TENORM.
Scott Radig, the department's waste management director, cited a study by Argonne National Laboratory showing that the new radioactivity level is safe for landfill workers and those outside landfill boundaries.
The Health Council, the 11-member governing and advisory body of the Health Department, voted 10-0 to ratify the rule, with member Greg Allen absent.
The council had decided to recreate its August 2015 meeting after two groups sued the council claiming that the meeting was held illegally and that Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem failed to penalize the council for it.
Stenehjem issued an opinion in March agreeing with the Dakota Resource Council and North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition and its leader, Darrell Dorgan, that the council had violated the state's open meetings law when it failed to give timely notice of the meeting.
As a remedy, Stenehjem ordered the council to provide minutes of the meeting to the two groups, Dorgan and anyone else who requested them.
But opponents weren't satisfied with that and filed a lawsuit in state district court asking a judge to void the rules, and attorney Sarah Vogel said that lawsuit will now move forward. A judge recently denied the council's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
Health Council chairman Wade Peterson began Tuesday's meeting by noting that it wasn't a public hearing, and he rankled opponents by limiting their testimony to a total of 20 minutes. The meeting grew increasingly heated, with Perry storming out at one point and several audience members heckling the council with comments such as, "What a joke," "You people aren't even listening," and "Why don't you put it in your own backyard?"
After ratifying the rules, the council unanimously approved a motion by Dr. Dennis Wolf to further study the radioactivity levels allowed for TENORM disposal, but there were no specifics on who would conduct the study or pay for it.
"I need much more clarification on what's expected of us," Radig said afterward.
Opponents said additional study should have come before the rules were adopted.
"We needed to get some standard in place to keep people from throwing radioactive waste in abandoned gas stations," Peterson responded, referring to the hundreds of radioactive filter socks found stockpiled in an abandoned gas station in the town of Noonan in February 2014, one of several illegal dumping cases that spurred calls for better tracking of oilfield waste.
Of the three landfill applications, Radig said IHD Solids Management LLC has asked that its application be put on hold until it can do more public education in McKenzie County, and the Health Department has asked for additional information from Secure Energy Services regarding its proposed special waste landfill about 13 miles north of Williston. Last week, the department received an application for the Wisco special waste landfill just off U.S. Highway 2 near the North Dakota-Montana border, he said.
Radig said the department hasn't received a report of illegal dumping in more than a year, which he credited in part to the new rules requiring on-site storage containers and cradle-to-grave tracking of TENORM waste. The department has previously estimated about 75 tons of the waste being generated daily in North Dakota, but Radig said it's likely less than that now with the downturn in the oil industry.
Robert Moran, a hydrologist and geochemist from Golden, Colo., speaking on behalf of the DRC, said the Argonne report is a nice modeling report but "nobody's ever compared it to real-world data." He said he believes groundwater is already being contaminated under current TENORM disposal levels, and he recommended holding off on the rules.
Derrick Braaten, an attorney for Tri Township in McKenzie County, which opposes the Indian Hills proposal by IHD Solids Management LLC, said local governments are hiring their own experts to study appropriate TENORM levels, and he asked the council to wait on the rules until those experts weigh in.
"There are a lot of questions out there, and they haven't been answered," he said.