North Dakota’s new radioactive waste disposal rules

Failure to comply with North Dakota’s public notice laws could lead to changes in North Dakota’s new radioactive waste disposal rules. The State Health Council approved the rules in August of 2015.  However, the council did not provide public notice of the meeting until two days before it occurred, even though the date had been set for several months. Two environmental groups have sued the Health Council and request that the meeting be re-done, this time with adequate public notice of its date and location. Public notice laws are intended to allow individual citizens to provide input on projects having a potentially significant impact on public health, the community, and the environment. The groups that have sought to enforce these public notice laws point out that dumping radioactive waste in the state is a preeminent public health concern.

The issue of what to do with radioactive waste has become increasingly important in North Dakota with the increased use of fracking in oil and gas production. Geologic formations containing oil and gas also contain Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (called “NORM”), which comes up with produced water during the fracking process. These materials include uranium, thorium, radium, potassium-40, and lead. When radionuclides are concentrated and exposed to the surface due to human activity, for example, during oil and gas extraction, they are classified as Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (“TENORM”). Employees exposed to small amounts of radiation over an extended period of time are at increased risk of cancer. Radiation can also cause gene mutations that can be passed on to children. Exposure to higher amounts of radiation can cause burns or radiation sickness.  Symptoms of radiation sickness can include nausea, weakness, hair loss, and reduced organ function.

The federal government does not regulate dumping of TENORM, meaning each state must enact its own rules and regulations on how to handle these radioactive materials. Currently, there are no approved radioactive landfills in the state of North Dakota, so radioactive waste produced in the Bakken oil field must be transported to certified locations in other states. The cost and time burdens associated with shipping radioactive waste have led some North Dakota companies to illegally dump radioactive materials into ditches and abandoned buildings.  The North Dakota Health Council’s new rules, which went into effect in January, allow up to 50 picocuries per gram in special landfills in the state.