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Oilfield waste facility proposed for McKenzie County in western ND

BISMARCK — Officials in McKenzie County say they want to better understand the risks of a proposed oilfield waste facility that would involve injecting a mixture of solid and liquid waste underground.

The North Dakota Department of Health has scheduled a public hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 21, at the Watford City Civic Center for a radioactive materials handling license sought by Waste Management of North Dakota.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission also is considering the company's application to drill two injection wells at the same location that would involve the underground injection of slurry, or ground-up solid waste that is blended with produced water.

Some county and township officials say they have concerns about the proposal, including the proximity of the wells to the Tobacco Garden aquifer. Waste Management's application says one disposal well would be 1,475 feet from the aquifer and the other about 2,290 feet away.

"It seems a bit close," said Jim Talbert, planning and zoning director for McKenzie County.

The company anticipates accepting waste with technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material, or TENORM, according to the application to the Health Department.

Rex Korslien, superintendent for Twin Valley Township, said he's not necessarily opposed to the proposal, but he wants to get his concerns addressed.

"We don't exactly know what it is," Korslien said. "You hear the word radioactive and it's scary."

The Health Department's review will focus on the handling of radioactive materials.

The Industrial Commission has not yet made a decision on the injection wells, but the public comment period is now closed, said Oil and Gas Division spokeswoman Alison Ritter. Several in McKenzie County said they didn't know about the Industrial Commission's review, which included a hearing in August in Bismarck, until it was too late to participate.

"It is one that we missed," Talpert said.

Waste Management also has indicated plans to apply to the Industrial Commission for a treating plant permit at the same location, and the public would have the opportunity to comment. The company's attorney has said he may seek a January hearing for that permit, Ritter said.

Waste Management says in its application there is a need for safe and economic oilfield waste disposal in North Dakota. Currently, solid oilfield waste is disposed of in landfills or drill cuttings pits.

The company proposes to build the Tobacco Garden Processing Facility about 12 miles north of Watford City to prepare solid and liquid waste to be injected about a mile underground.

The application says slurry injection involves grinding solid wastes into particles and blending them with produced water. The facility would inject an average of 15,000 barrels per day into an underground zone known as the Inyan Kara Formation that is often used for wastewater injection in North Dakota.

It is not clear from Waste Management's permit application what level of radioactive waste the company anticipates blending with produced water and injecting underground. The company did not return a call seeking comment on Friday afternoon.

Oilfield wastes, such as tank bottom sludge and scale, that forms inside well pipes and equipment contain TENORM, which is created when materials with Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material are removed from the earth and concentrated by activities such as oil and gas production.

Radioactive waste with levels above 5 picocuries per gram is currently trucked out of state. The North Dakota Department of Health increased the state's limit to 50 picocuries per gram but has yet to permit any facilities to accept waste at higher levels.

The permit application the health department is considering would focus on the safe handling of radioactive materials above ground, while the Industrial Commission has jurisdiction over the liquids injected underground, said Dale Patrick, manager of the health department's radioactive materials program.