Crowd Gathers to learn more about Radioactive Oil Field Waste

Approximately 80 citizens of western North Dakota attended the Radioactive Oilfield Waste Public Information Meeting at the High Plains Cultural Center in Killdeer Tuesday night.

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By Jennifer Strange

For the DC Herald

The hour-long program, followed by Q&A, was organized in part by a group of Dunn County residents. It featured information from the Dakota Resource Council and statewide experts on the hazards and long-term effects of living or owning land near radioactive oilfield waste storage.

Last year a landfill that would accept such waste was proposed for Dunn County. Although the company pulled its proposal, others can be expected to follow, said program organizer Linda Kittleson.

“Our intention for the meeting is to share information,” she said. “That way the next time a proposal comes in, we are informed about the risks beforehand and not just reacting.”

Darrell Dorgan of the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition spoke first. The Medora resident talked to the audience about existing dump sites in the region and how they are not designed to accept radioactive oilfield waste but would be expected to do so if the proposals were approved. Dorgan showed slides of trucks spilling residue from radioactively-contaminated filter socks onto highways and roads. Other slides illustrated the size and lack of safety regulations in place at a radioactive oilfield waste site near Glendive, Mont. Dorgan said the situation would likely be repeated in North Dakota.

The next speaker was David Schwalbe, who grew up in Killdeer. The retired rancher has spent the last several years trying to sort out what he feels is corrupt overreach by the oil industry, on land his family once homesteaded and throughout the Bakken area. Schwalbe expressed concern for the long-term health of Dunn County residents, including children and future generations, should radioactive oilfield waste become part of the landscape.

Dr. Larry Heilmann, a retired microbiologist who worked with radioactive isotopes for 30 years, took the podium next. Through a series of diagrams, drawings and slides, Heilmann explained the science behind radioactivity, some of which naturally occurs in the environment at levels not particularly harmful to humans. He said that oilfield waste generates much higher levels of radioactivity.

“To say that this is safe and you don’t have to worry about it is simply not true,” said Heilmann. He said that if the waste does need to be stored, systems can be put in place to mitigate the risks to human health. But, he said, those systems are not in place and are not part of the proposed sites.

“To back the trucks up and just dump it is an accident waiting to happen,” Heilmann said. “There could be cross contamination that would come back in 30 years and require millions of dollars to clean up.”

After the presentation, audience members were invited to ask questions. McKenzie and Dunn County landowners said they were frustrated by what feels like a lack of information and local control over what might happen in their neighborhoods and, in some cases, on their property if radioactive oilfield waste sites are approved in the region.

Dorgan encouraged citizens to “stand up and voice yourselves” to the State Health Department, the Oil and Gas Commission and other elected officials. Emails, letters, phone calls and meaningful votes are all effective tools, said Dorgan.

“They work for you,” he told the audience. “You pay their salaries. We’re not trying to shut down the oil industry. We just want them to do it right—to protect the people.”

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