Radioactive Waste From Bakken Oil Fields Raises Concerns About Local Water Contamination
By Katie Rucke
Editor’s note: Some names have been changed in this article to protect the identities of certain individuals who came to MintPress with concerns about how this landfill would affect the health and well-being of those who lived nearby and depended on water sources the landfill could potentially pollute. Several days after we interviewed those individuals, some have expressed concern about the possible ramifications they could face for publishing this story, which is why their identities are being protected. The purpose of this story is to highlight environmental issues that are in the interests of the public and residents, as well as their right to be informed of potentially harmful activities occurring in their area.
The 200 or so people who call Lindsay, MT, home likely never imagined they would find themselves in the middle of an environmental battle fueled by radioactive waste. But that’s exactly what happened in the small community of farmers and ranchers in Eastern Montana after a local farmer opened a landfill and started collecting naturally occurring radioactive waste materials generated by the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota.
Known as Oaks Disposal Services landfill, the dump site is the creation of Ross Oakland and his wife, Tara. The duo are Montana-based farmers who have been growing wheat, peas and lentils on their farm in Lindsay since 1992.
In an interview with MintPress, Oakland said he got the idea to build a landfill on his property after an oil company began to drill on land adjacent to his farmland. Oakland, who worked as a driller in the 1980s after graduating from high school, noticed the oil company didn’t have a pit to dump the waste materials, so he asked a “company man” what was being done with the materials.
“Back when I was a driller, everything went into a pit on location and (we) just buried (the materials),” Oakland recalled. “Now they are environmentally friendly.”
Inspired by the new “environmentally friendly” approach Oakland said the oil companies were taking, he called Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality and went through a two-year approval process for the state’s first, and currently only, Class II Solid Waste Management System.
Open since June 3, 2013, Oakland’s 23.1-acre landfill accepts solid waste primarily related to the exploration and production of oil and gas. This includes sludge, drill cuttings, filter socks and pit liners, among other materials.
Oakland stressed that Montana allows almost anyone to operate a landfill, as long as the dump site is built correctly and can withstand naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) that contains no more than 30 picocuries of radiation per gram. Picocuries are how the intensity of radioactive material is measured.
Oakland noted that North Dakota landfills don’t accept any NORM waste that is over five picocuries per gram, which is why the waste is being sent to states such as Montana.
To ensure that the waste material doesn’t seep into the ground and—more importantly—the town’s water supply, Oakland said he created a “state-of-the-art facility” that includes two “top of the line” liners, an 18-inch layer of gravel, four monitoring walls around the perimeter of the landfill, a basal layer, as well as a leachate solution system. MintPress was unable to independently verify this.
Some of Oakland’s neighbors say they are concerned about the toxic materials being brought into their town from North Dakota. They claim that Oakland’s landfill is ruining the local land, air and water, and it’s only a matter of time before disaster strikes, which could result in a polluted water supply or health effects similar to those reported after prolonged exposure to radioactive and toxic waste materials in WWII-era Hiroshima.
Given that the landfill has already spilled or overflowed at least three times, Montana could be in the beginning stages of its own environmental and health disaster.
Ticking Time Bomb
“Robert” and his wife, “Sarah,” live a few miles from Oakland’s property and about 10 miles from the landfill, on a homestead Robert’s family has owned since 1915. They, along with Robert’s sister, “Meghan,” told MintPress they are concerned about the landfill, since they are downwind and downstream from the waste site. They also say the dump was built on top of an aquifer—a claim Oakland denies.
But according to a report from the state of Montana’s Ground-Water Data Task Force, there is some type of an aquifer below most of the state, especially in the eastern portion of the state where Lindsay is located.
The family has raised their concerns about the landfill with various officials, including President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as local officials. They grow wheat and raise cattle on their land, which contributes to their pollution concerns. As Meghan explained to MintPress, the agencies have all told them the same thing: nothing can be done until a disaster occurs and there’s a “smoking gun” in the form of a massive spill or the water supply is highly contaminated.
“The thing is,” Meghan said, “with this kind of stuff, there is no disaster immediately. Disaster occurs after it is way too late.”
Although the family appears to be the only people in town complaining about the landfill, Robert, Sarah and Meghan said they are fighting to protect the entire town from the toxic materials, since the water in the town leads directly to Deer Creek, then on to Yellowstone, before reaching the Missouri River. And as Sarah pointed out, the creek also runs by at least three schools along the way.
The family told MintPress that they are the only ones in town willing to publicly oppose the landfill because Oakland has paid off some people in town to keep their mouths shut. They claim that the few people in this small town who haven’t been paid off are too afraid of retaliation from Oakland to speak out.
Sources in the community said Oakland has even bought the Dawson County Commissioner’s support, citing a Feb. 16, 2014 article in the Ranger-Review, which reported that Oakland and his wife donated $50,000 to a restroom project at the Dawson County Fairgrounds.
Oakland told the Ranger-Review, a local newspaper, that he was tired of all the negativity surrounding the oilfield, adding that the money he donated for the bathroom project is “oil-generated money,” which he said proves that his landfill is good for the community.
Meghan said one woman shared with her privately in a message on a social media network that she was scared to publicly oppose the landfill because she doesn’t want her business to suffer.
The afflicted family’s main contention about the disposal site is that Oakland insists that the oil industry’s presence in the community will be for everyone’s benefit, but the level of radioactive material in Oakland’s pit is higher than the radioactive material found in Hiroshima, Japan, according to Robert.
MintPress asked Gov. Bullock (D-MT) to comment on the issue, since some residents have expressed concern about the landfill. Bullock’s Deputy Communications Director Mike Wessler told MintPress that the governor is involved in this issue, and he is working closely with the state’s director of environmental quality to ensure that all appropriate steps are taken. But in the end, Wessler recommended we contact the DEQ directly.
The family said this kind of response has been one of the biggest obstacles in their battle to prevent Oakland from continuing to accept toxic and radioactive material in his landfill. They said they are constantly sent from one agency to another, with various officials telling them there is nothing they can do about it because Oakland was issued a license.
But the family is also concerned about how Oakland was issued the license in the first place, as well as the environmental problems associated with the landfill.
While the Montana DEQ maintains that the “Oaks Landfill application has been thoroughly reviewed, approved, and is licensed to operate as a Solid Waste Management System, which is currently in compliance with all applicable laws and rules,” the family says they believe there are several disconcerting facets of Oakland’s landfill approval process.
One such facet is that while the state’s DEQ is required to notify the public about a proposed landfill site and allow 30 days for public comments, the family said the public was notified via a small print ad in the back of the Ranger-Review on Dec. 27, 2012. The public comment period ended on Jan. 21, 2013. In addition, the public comment meetings were held in Helena, MT, which is about seven hours from the disposal site.
The commissioners signed off on the landfill site on Feb. 2, 2013 and gave approval for the oil companies to use the county roads on Feb. 11, 2013, even though Oakland’s license wasn’t issued until Feb. 14, 2013—the same day that the DEQ sent an urgent certified letter to Dr. Joseph Leal, Chief Health Officer of Montana’s Dawson County, to sign off on the landfill.
Sarah knows Dr. Leal. She said she asked him why he agreed to sign off on the creation of such a landfill. She claims he informed her that he didn’t know anything about the landfill or the type of material that would be dumped in the site, and that he was told that if he didn’t sign the document immediately, he would have to go defend himself in court.
When MintPress attempted to contact Leal, his receptionist said he had no interest in commenting.
In an email to MintPress, Chris Saeger—spokesman for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality—said that the state’s “standards for protecting human health and the environment are only defined by laws passed by the legislature and Congress. Based on those laws and our staff’s thorough review of the incident you’ve mentioned, the facility is in compliance with DEQ’s standards.”
Saeger stressed that “our response to public concerns—as detailed above—can only be based on the legal authority we’ve been given by the state legislature.”
What Saeger is referring to is the fact that according to a regulatory determination issued in 1988, oil waste is not considered to be hazardous material for disposal purposes. Based on this, Montana’s DEQ can’t legally investigate the landfill further because under state and federal law the material is not considered to be hazardous. In other words, Oakland’s landfill is treated more as a regular garbage dump than a radioactive waste facility.
Since the family started to push back against the landfill, Robert and Sarah said that trucks hauling the radioactive oil waste have begun to travel on the county road located about 50 feet from their home, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Knowing that the family is opposed to the landfill, Robert and Sarah said the truckers often honk their horns when they pass by their home.
Additional environmental concerns
Because the oil waste is not tarped down, it flies out of the trucks as they make their way to the landfill. Robert said the truckers began to spray magnesium chloride on the roads to keep the dust down. Oakland estimates that he spent about $9,000 to spray this chemical on the roads in 2013, which the Centers for Disease Control say contains poisonous additives that are known to cause organ dysfunction.
In addition to the family’s concerns about the dust and magnesium chloride sprayed on the road outside their home, they say they have recorded at least four spills at the landfill so far. The first allegedly occurred on Sept. 19, 2013 and the most recent on Jan. 19.
When MintPress asked Oakland about the alleged oil spills, he said his landfill site has never overflowed or spilled and that Robert, Sarah and Meghan are “bad people” no one in town listens to. He further claimed that the Montana DEQ has stopped listening to their “unfounded” complaints as well.
When MintPress asked Saeger, of the DEQ, if there was any truth to Oakland’s claims that this particular family’s concerns were unfounded, he said “the owner of Oaks Disposal Service (Oakland) does not speak for the Montana DEQ.” He added that the agency has “undertaken a very thorough inspection of this facility in response to concerns raised by the [affected] family.”
Saeger added that the DEQ has received complaints about two confirmed spills. He explained that one of the complaints was resolved through the landfill owner’s clean-up, while the other confirmed complaint of a spill is in the process of being resolved.
Because a third complaint “contained incomplete information,” Saeger said the DEQ wasn’t able to respond to it. The agency, he said, has not received a complaint about a fourth spill.
Since MintPress spoke to the DEQ, Meghan told MintPress about a fifth spill that occurred around the first week of March 2014.