North Dakota’s first operational TENORM disposal well has already injected 7,000 barrels of radioactive slurry thousands of feet underground in McKenzie County, in a process that’s so far behaving just as modeling had predicted it would.
KT Enterprises was the second company in North Dakota to seek permission to try this new approach to disposal of TENORM wastes in North Dakota, but it was first to cross the finish line and receive all its permits. It began operating in April on a 40-acre site one-half mille south of Johnson’s Corner, which is the intersection of Highway 73 and 23.
Vice President of the company Keith Norbeck said things are going very well at this point for the fledgling project.
“We basically think that the technology is going to continue to play out favorably,” he told the Williston Herald. “So we’re still excited about it.”
Whether the company will drill any more slurry wells remains to be seen, Norbeck said. That’s under evaluation, and will be based on demand. If there is enough demand, Norbeck said they might look at regional wells to accept TENORM wastes in slurry form.
Norbeck and his father already operated two salt water disposal wells prior to drilling the slurry well. The idea was something they’d been thinking about early on in the boom, but state laws at the time and questions about economic feasibility have made them hesitate. They knew it was a good concept though, and once the state changed its laws to allow TENORM disposal, and demand began to rise for in-state handling of the drilling waste, they decided now was the time to take that leap.
“This process has been done since back in the 80s in places like Alaska and a few other places,” Norbeck said. “In challenging areas, this is what they do with their drill cuttings. So the technology isn’t brand new, but it’s definitely new to North Dakota.”
To get permission to drill the state’s first operational slurry well, the company has actually done a lot of modeling ahead of time, to show where all the wastes would go, and how they would behave underground. Now the company is collecting data on each and every injection, verifying that those models are correct and accurate.
“The vast majority of this waste comes in a liquid format, which, that’s the best way to handle it,” Norbeck said. “And so, at the end of the day, it doesn’t become airborne or anything like that.”
The drilling wastes are brought in on trucks and put into tanks, keeping the TENORM in a contained environment the whole time. Before injection 7,500 feet underground, the slurry is processed to ensure it has the right viscosity and other properties for injection.
Because of the nature of this process, slurry wells can’t take things like filter socks or other solids that can’t be mobilized in a slurry form, but the wells are suitable for saltwater disposal, which helps the business model for TENORM disposal.
North Dakota has excellent geology for underground storage of TENORM wastes, Norbeck said. That great geology includes various impermeable layers that will hold and contain the wastes deep below ground, which is where they came from in the first place.
North Dakota has struggled with disposal of TENORM since the boom began. With a 5 pico curie per gram limit, no solid waste management facilities could accept TENORM wastes when the boom began. All the material had to be trucked out of state, much of it to a facility in eastern Montana.
Several incidents of illegal dumping prompted the state to commission a study with Argonne National Laboratories to look at a safe threshold for disposal of TENORM wastes in its solid waste management facilities. Based on that study, North Dakota raised its threshold for radioactive materials to 50 pico curies per gram in 2016.
Several companies, including two in Williams County have since applied for conditional use permits that would allow their existing landfill operations to accept up to 25,000 tons annually of TENORM wastes with up to 50 pico curies per gram radiation. These applications, for WISCO and Secure Energy Services, were to be taken up by Williams County Planning and Zoning June 17.
It will be the second go-round for Secure Energy, whose first application was denied so that Williams County could undertake a regional study on TENORM facilities with the assistance of Western Dakota Energy Association.
That study found North Dakota generates 92,000 tons of TENORM annually, the equivalent of 2,300 truckloads. Most of that has been hauled across the border to disposal sites in Montana.
Brent Bogar, senior consultant with AE2S Nexus, prepared the study, which includes a heat map showing where TENORM is most likely to be produced.
Bogar told the Williston Herald he is recommending the state consider consolidating the permitting for TENORM facilities with DEQ, similar to what states did with pipeline permitting and the PSC in 2017.
The process would still allow counties to have considerable input, while placing authority for permitting the facilities with the state.