Fighting to keep the oil boom out of North Dakota park

The sun sets over the Bakken Oil Formation, behind an oil well near Williston, N.D. 

A chemical waste landfill near the Columbia Gorge in Eastern Oregon has been accepting hundreds of tons of radioactive fracking waste from North Dakota in violation of Oregon regulations.

Oregon Department of Energy officials issued a “notice of violation” to Chemical Waste Management’s landfill near the small town of Arlington on Thursday for accepting a total of 2 million pounds of Bakken oil field waste that was delivered by rail in 2016, 2017 and 2019.

With landfill officials’ permission, Oilfield Waste Logistics of Culbertson, Montana, dumped the waste, some of which registered radium at 300 times the state’s limits. On average, the waste registered radium at 140 picocuries per gram, according to Jeff Burright, a state nuclear waste remediation specialist. The state’s maximum level for waste stored at Arlington is 5 picocuries, he said.

Energy Department regulators said the landfill won’t be fined for accepting the radioactive waste because they believe landfill operators misunderstood state guidelines and weren’t aware of the violations, said Ken Niles, assistant director for nuclear safety.

He said the agency can only fine companies — ranging from $60 to $500 a day — under certain circumstances. Fines can be levied if a violator had previously been notified of a violation and repeated it or did something similar. The department also fines companies for willful violations or violations that result in “significant adverse impacts” to humans or the environment. Niles said none of those issues applied in the case of Chemical Waste Management.

“That could change if something were to change in our knowledge,” Niles said. “But the company has been taking this very seriously. They have been very cooperative and want to do the right thing.”

Regulators said they determined the biggest risks would be if the waste were ingested or inhaled, if people faced direct exposure or if it emitted radon. Currently, Burright said, the state does not believe those issues are a risk because of how the waste is stored on the 1,300-acre landfill, including being covered by at least 10 feet of other material.

Burright said that employees at the landfill avoided direct exposure because they work in pressurized cabins and when they’re outside, rely on oxygen masks.

The landfill, which has not accepted another load of Bakken oil field runoff since September 2019, must now create a risk assessment and action plan to address the violation. If the energy department receives enough feedback on the documents, Niles said, the agency could hold a public meeting to accept comments.

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