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New North Dakota Radioactive Drilling Waste Rules Coming

Assuming two regulatory steps are completed this fall, North Dakota next year will launch a set of rules for disposal of a byproduct of oil and natural gas production that can be found in tank sludge called technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material (TENORM).

Currently, even small amounts of TENORM are required to be disposed of in special approved landfills outside of North Dakota. That will change, along with stiffer recordkeeping and recording requirements for oil/gas operators if the new rule created earlier this year passes review by the state attorney general and an administrative committee of the state legislature.

Generally considered low-level radioactive material, TENORM is measured in "picocuries/gram" and anything above 5 picocuries currently must be disposed out of state. A state Department of Health (DoH)-commissioned study by Argonne National Laboratories completed last year determined that TENORM up to 50 picocuries can be safely disposed in North Dakota under certain conditions.

The state Department of Health's (DoH) environmental section proposed adopting the new 50-level criterion, and the State Health Council in August adopted the new rules, which were drafted and revised following public hearings and a public comment period that ended in March this year.

Out of the study came the proposal to raise the threshold from 5 to 50 picocuries, and the state added requirements for well operators, calling for registration of generators, licensing of storage-treatment-disposal facilities, tracking of the waste, and regular reporting to DoH.

In North Dakota, waste transported off site for treatment or burial in landfills is regulated by DoH; waste treated on the wellsite is regulated by the Industrial Commission's Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) oil/gas division.

Under a new North Dakota law (HB 1390) this year, industry and health department officials have been examining how to enhance the state's oversight and handling of waste -- including radioactive materials -- from  drilling sites that have grown substantially in recent years with the oil boom (see Shale DailyJune 18).

Scott Radig, waste management director in the DoH's environmental health section, cautions that everyone focuses on the raising of the threshold level to 50, but he said there are a lot of new reporting and monitoring requirements that go along with that. For example, there is a requirement for a radiation safety officer to be in charge of certain activities, licensing for companies transporting, treating or disposing of TENORM, and licensing for disposal sites.

Generated in oil exploration/production activities, TENORM is commonly found in tank sludge, pipe scale and "filter socks" that over the years were disposed of illegally in the state. Operators and others can get additional information on TENORM at the DoH website (

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