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Decision Looms on Radioactive Waste from ND Oil Production

PHOTO: The new year begins in North Dakota with a plan to loosen limits on the disposal of radioactive materials from oil and gas production in the state. Photo credit: Lindsey G/Flickr.
PHOTO: The new year begins in North Dakota with a plan to loosen limits on the disposal of radioactive materials from oil and gas production in the state. Photo credit: Lindsey G/Flickr.
December 31, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. - Every year of the oil boom in North Dakota has brought new challenges and struggles, and among the issues on the forefront for 2015 is radioactive waste.

State regulators are pursuing plans to increase the allowable oil-and-gas radioactive waste disposal limit tenfold, saying the higher maximum won't be a threat to human health or welfare. But Don Morrison, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, disagrees. If the waste no longer is being transported to other states where limits are higher, Morrison predicts it will end up in regional dumping grounds.

"It's something that the oil industry knew was going to be there for them to deal with, and they didn't put it in their business plan," he said. "So now, they want to destroy and contaminate farmland in North Dakota in order to take care of their problem."

Public hearings on the plan to increase the level of radioactivity in the waste accepted at the state's oil-and-gas and industrial landfills will be held in mid-January in Bismarck, Fargo and Williston. It's estimated that oil and gas production in North Dakota generates from 30 to 70 tons of radioactive waste a year.

Another area of concern coming to the surface with North Dakota oil is revenue. Morrison said the dropping price of crude could trigger a two-year, $5 billion tax break for oil companies on new wells.

"The way North Dakota's tax law is structured is really to be as helpful to the oil industry as possible," he said, "and so, if the price of oil goes down to a certain level, then the Oil Extraction Tax is eliminated for two years."

For the Oil Extraction Tax to be waived, the average price of crude oil has to be below $52.59 a barrel for five straight months - which isn't far from where it's currently trading.

Details about the public hearings are online at ndhan.gov. Waste background from the state is at ndhealth.gov. More information on the opposition is at drcinfo.org, and details about the tax trigger are at nd.gov.

John Michaelson, Public News Service - ND