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MT Lawmakers Pause Radioactive Waste Limits, Draw Public Ire

The only waste disposal site permitted for radioactive material in Montana is in the eastern part of the state, near Glendive. (Northern Plains Resource Council)
The only waste disposal site permitted for radioactive material in Montana is in the eastern part of the state, near Glendive. (Northern Plains Resource Council)
May 22, 2020

HELENA, Mont. - Lawmakers could sideline Montana's radioactive waste disposal rules from oil and gas industries next week, despite public opposition.

The Legislative Environmental Quality Council voted to delay Department of Environmental Quality limits last month, and could make that decision final at its May 27 meeting. The rules were aimed at limiting radioactive waste materials at landfills.

Seth Newton is a rancher in Glendive, and a spokesman for and member of the Northern Plains Resource Council. He lives near the only waste site permitted for radioactive material in Montana so far.

"We just want to know what's going on and know it's done right, and the contents that's being put in there will stay in there," says Newton. "They're being put there to be managed safely, indefinitely."

Debate over the waste limit has gone on for years. State Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, called the Environmental Quality Council meeting in April when he said the council hadn't been able to scrutinize the latest proposal.

In the initial 2017 draft, the state proposed a limit of 50 picocuries of radiation per gram, the same limit as North Dakota and other oil-producing states. In 2019, DEQ proposed quadrupling the limit to 200 picocuries, sparking public outrage.

Early this year, the agency reverted to its original proposal. Newton says the landfill near his ranch is proof that states will dump their waste in Montana without rules in place.

"It needs to be adhered to, or we're just going to be known as the radioactive destination," says Newton. "If the limit's set at 200, that's going to be what you get in the dump."

Oaks Disposal has accepted 450,000 tons of waste at the site - and nearly three-quarters is from North Dakota, according to Northern Plains.

Newtown says limits also are important for Montana's future.

"Just trying to make the best of it and leave a legacy that future generations can actually live with," says Newton.

Northern Plains is spearheading a letter-writing campaign to Environmental Quality Council members ahead of the Wednesday meeting.

Disclosure: Northern Plains Resource Council contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Energy Policy, Rural/Farming. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT