The future of rules governing the disposal of radioactive wastes in Montana, a majority of which come from North Dakota’s oilfields, is hanging in the balance, a Sidney officials says, and the citizenry’s attention is urgently needed to ensure the state follows science, rather than superstition.

Sidney attorney Tom Halvorson is raising the alarm bell over recent actions taken by the Environmental Quality Council, which he said is threatening to upend six years of citizens’ work to develop sensible, science-based regulations to govern the disposal of TENORM.

The council, at a recent meeting, voted 10 to 6 to informally object to DEQ-proposed rules that would have set 50 picocuries as the limit for TENORM wastes disposal in the state.

The rules were developed after numerous public hearings to gather comments, as well as the work of a stakeholder group that included Richland County Commissioner Duane Mitchell, who advocated for standards consistent with neighboring states.

“In North Dakota, the Department of Health paid I think it was $182,000 to Argonne Laboratories for a study of TENORM, with recommendations to the Department of Health on the levels that should be accepted in North Dakota,” Halvorson pointed out.

The level Argonne arrived at was 51.6 picocuries, and their recommendation was to set the limit just under that, at 50 picocuries.

Montana also hired a different, independent firm to conduct its own study, which also came up with the same safety recommendation of 50 picocuries.

Halvorson said the Environmental Quality Council’s idea of setting a “rolling average” has several problems, which were highlighted in both state’s studies.

“There is no way of computing a meaningful rolling average,” he said. “It does not work to allow occasional hot loads on the theory that you will keep a computation of the average in the landfill. No one knows how to compute that average. This whole idea that you will keep the rolling average down to 50 is just superstition, and it is contradicted by science. ”

Halvorson said he used the Freedom of Information Act to request information on other states using a rolling average, and the Montana DEQ told him there are no states doing it that way.

Further, a 200 pico-curie limit, which the Council is advocating, would give Montana the highest allowed radiation level in the nation, as far as state-regulated facilities go. There are federal facilities that are higher, but not state.

The Environmental Quality Council meeting May 27-28 to consider the matter is open to the public, Halvorson said, and he is encouraging Montanans to attend. To join the livestream, email jkolman@mt.gov with your name and a request for the meeting link. You will be sent instructions for joining and participating in the call by 5 p.m. the day before the meeting.

There will be time in the agenda for public comments. It will be a Zoom meeting, so those wishing to ask a question during the appropriate time may “raise their hand” to be recognized by the presiding officer or Zoom manager.

Comments will be taken in order.

Written comments may also be sent via email in advance of the meeting to jkolman@mt.gov, and those will be provided to committee members. These comments are considered a public record and may be recorded, archived, and available on the Web.

For questions about the hearing or for reasonable accommodations, contact Joe Kolman at 406-444-3474.

Halvorson stressed he is not against the disposal of TENORM waste in general.

Naturally occurring radioactive materials, or NORM, come to the surface routinely during the oil and gas extraction process. They collect on filter socks and in tank bottoms and other such things, where they become more concentrated over time as more material passes through them and accumulates. At that point, they become known as Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials or TENORM.

“We’ve known about TENORM for a long time,” Halvorson said. “This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about it. There is a good body of (scientific) literature about it, and with the activity in the Bakken due to the boom, we’ve been able to get some samples as far as the hydraulic fracturing mechanisms that concentrate some of the TENORM materials into filter socks, drill pipes and into slurries. Because there is so much research, science has been able to pin it down.”

That science has enabled Montana and North Dakota to independently arrive at the same number for setting a safe threshold on the disposal of radioactive waste, Halvorson said.

“Let’s go with science on this, not superstition,” he said.

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