The Environmental Quality Council has sidetracked six years of citizen work to protect Montana against radioactive waste from out of state. At its April 2020 meeting, the Council voted 10-to-6 to file an informal objection to protective rules proposed by the Department of Environmental Quality. The objection delays the rules going into effect. If the Council continues its objection at its May meeting, sidetracking will become permanent derailment.
DEQ’s proposed rules would establish safeguards for disposal of TENORM waste. TENORM is naturally occurring radioactive material with technologically elevated radioactivity. TENORM comes to Montana from the oilfield in North Dakota.
The North Dakota Department of Health hired Argonne National Laboratory to study TENORM in 2013. Argonne used the International Commission on Radiological Protection’s maximum recommended exposure to calculate a safe disposal limit. Argonne recommended 50 picocuries per gram. North Dakota set 50 pCi/gm as the limit starting January 1, 2016.
Montana has no administrative rules regulating disposal of TENORM. DEQ licensed the Oaks Disposal site in Dawson County that began taking TENORM in June 2013. DEQ licensed more TENORM disposals near Outook, Culbertson, Missoula, Baker, and Great Falls.
North Dakota has no licensed TENORM disposal sites. Almost 80% of the TENORM at Oaks Disposal comes from North Dakota.
Citizens raised concerns and DEQ hired Tetra Tech Inc to study TENORM. Tetra Tech reached the same conclusion as Argonne and recommended the same 50 pCi/gm limit for Montana.
DEQ began writing proposed rules. It formed a stakeholder work group of non-governmental organizations, industry representatives, local government officials, scientists, and informed citizens. Richland County Commissioner Duane Mitchell served on the work group. He promoted standards consistent with neighboring states.
There were many public hearings, miles traveled, work invested, meetings, and legal procedures followed. Richland County Commissioner Shane Gorder and Civil Attorney Tom Halvorson testified in Helena for consistency with surrounding states and notice of radioactive spills to protect local EMTs, firefighters, and deputy sheriffs. DEQ received over 2,400 public comments.
In January 2020, DEQ proposed 50 pCi/gm consistent with science, North Dakota’s rule, the work group, and public comments.
Suddenly, the Environmental Quality Council put the proposed rules on its agenda for April 27, 2020. One member of the Council said there was a negotiated deal to quadruple the limit from 50 to 200 pCi/gm. He said he has a real problem with public comment changing that deal. Another member’s remark suggested the deal might be with the Montana Petroleum Association, who wanted 200 pCi/gm.
The Richland County Commission had heard there was criticism of DEQ for giving too much weight to public comment. The Commission commented saying, “That is a strange criticism in a free republic of self-government. We should count ourselves fortunate when any state agency, instead of lording it over the people, listens to us.”
The future of out-of-state radioactive waste will be in the balance at the Council’s May 27-28, 2020 meeting. Citizens should not be discouraged from commenting to retain 50 pCi/gm for our health and safety.
Tom Halvorson is a civil lawyer in Sidney.
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