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North Dakota Defends Its Handling of Oilfield Waste

North Dakota regulators are challenged by increasing volumes of wellsite waste from growth in the Bakken Shale, but the state now is facing criticism for not doing enough to protect the environment and in particular, groundwater.

State officials have pushed back on a report last Sunday in the Los Angeles Times. They told NGI's Shale Daily that there have been no incidents of groundwater contamination. Even with the record ramp-up of oilfield waste volumes, the departments of Health (DH) and Mineral Resources (DMR) are on top of the situation, they said.

The Times reported incidents of radioactive waste in one of 10 special permitted oilfield landfill dumps overseen by DH. Radioactive waste is required to be taken out of state. A DH official, however, said the percentage of waste involving radioactivity is small and well controlled.

As a result of illegally dumped oilfield byproducts from the Bakken Shale that contain naturally occurring radioactive waste, new permit requirements were established by DMR for oil, natural gas and saltwater disposal wells in North Dakota's Williston Basin (see Shale Daily, March 13). They took effect June 1 (see Shale Daily, April 10).

"We have a very lengthy permitting process for the oilfield waste landfill disposal sites," said DH’s Scott Radig, director of the waste management division. "The sites are very frequently inspected."

In addition, the state is "very close" to having rules drafted to cover cradle-to-grave tracking of all technologically enhanced, naturally occurring radioactive materials generated in the state. Radioactive materials are "a very tiny" part of the overall oilfield wastes, he said.

Critics cite the lack of a "hazardous" designation on the oilfield waste, which would be more stringently regulated. There is also the use of visual inspections for solid waste in North Dakota as applying to all waste, which may give the impression that there is no instrumentation used in monitoring.

"North Dakota solid waste laws allow the use of visual inspections or the use of an apparatus called a paint filter test to determine whether a load is dry enough and should be accepted or rejected," Radig said. "The landfills do use radiation meters at the gate to check loads and the groundwater monitoring network around each landfill is routinely sampled and the chemical results submitted to the health department."

Radig added that his department conducts monthly inspections at the landfills. "All rejected waste loads must be reported to the department and followed up on to tell us where the waste was sent for further treatment."

Earlier this year, a North Dakota state legislative committee approved industry-supported rule changes for drilling taking that would take effect April 1 under the oversight of DMR. Shortly thereafter, DMR reported that a Wyoming-based trucking company was facing potential fines of more than $1 million and criminal charges against the driver of the truck for allegedly dumping saltwater from oil and gas operations in North Dakota's Bakken Shale (see Shale Daily, April 17).

Volumes of oilfield waste have grown "incredibly" in recent years, according to Radig, with 1.78 million tons of drilling and oilfield waste going into the special landfills last year, compared to under 10,000 tons in 2001. Radig expects the total to climb again this year.

Today there are 10 permitted, private sector-operated special landfills to handle oilfield waste, said Radig, adding that there were only three five years ago. There also are several existing or proposed facilities seeking permitting from the state health department. DH also is adding more staff, but longer term, technology advancements to treat the oilfield waste are an ultimate solution.

"We're getting a number of inquiries from companies developing treatment processes for the waste so they can treat the drilling waste, remove contaminants, and then beneficially reuse a lot of material to cut down a lot on the volumes of waste having to be disposed," Radig said. "That's something we are really looking forward to in the future."

A volunteer nonprofit group of oil and natural gas engineers, the Bakken Waste Watch Coalition, also has made informal allegations about environmental violations. A DMR spokesperson on Tuesday raised concerns about the coalition, which has not publicly addressed the charges.

"If someone is aware of something damaging to the environment being done and they don't come to us, that would be in violation of the rules," the spokesperson said. "We have taken steps to tighten our rules as far as reserve and cuttings pits, and we use science as far as the federal government requires."

DMR requires that drilling cuttings' pits, or the limited number of reserve pits onsite, be stabilized or dried before final reclamation. Materials used by the operators requires approval, as do wellsite pits and final reclamations. When a rig moves from a location, the operator has 30 days to reclaim the cuttings pit.

"The stabilization material used to dry and encapsulate the pits is based on testing and science approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, so there is no additional monitoring except for inspector visits when the well is actually producing," said spokesperson. "We did away with the reserve pits in 2012, so since then they contain only dry [cutting] materials, and those materials have to be stabilized with health department-approved materials."

The reserve pits that include both wet and dry waste are now a "rare exception," and the state has only allowed 12 since 2012, the spokesperson told NGI's Shale Daily. There were more than 3,000 reserve pits between 2006 and April 2012, and since mid-2012 there have been about 1,200 cutting pits. The acceleration of the reserve pit numbers prompted the state's rule changes in 2012.

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