Policy: Environment & Energy

North Dakota to pay for illegal oil waste cleanup

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Photo - FILE - This March 3, 2014 file photo provided by the North Dakota Health Department are bags full of radioactive oil filter socks, the nets that strain liquids during the oil production process, piled in an abandoned building in Noonan, ND. North Dakota will pay for the cleanup of the illegally dumped radioactive waste, according to  documents obtained Thursday, March, 20, 2014 by The Associated Press shows. (AP Photo/North Dakota Health Department, File)
FILE - This March 3, 2014 file photo provided by the North Dakota Health Department are bags full of radioactive oil filter socks, the nets that strain liquids during the oil production process, piled in an abandoned building in Noonan, ND. North Dakota will pay for the cleanup of the illegally dumped radioactive waste, according to documents obtained Thursday, March, 20, 2014 by The Associated Press shows. (AP Photo/North Dakota Health Department, File)
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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota will pay for the cleanup of illegally dumped radioactive oil field waste found on the outskirts of a tiny town in the northwest corner of the state, a document obtained by The Associated Press shows.

Regulators planned to announce a contractor to clean up the site near Noonan on Monday, an attorney for the Legislative Council — the Legislature's research arm — said in an email obtained by the AP.

Officials earlier this month reported the illegal dumping of hundreds of radioactive oil filter socks in a 4,000-square-foot abandoned building in Noonan, a town of about 200 people that's about 7 miles from the Canadian border. Officials said it's the state's biggest incident to date of illegal dumping of radioactive oil filter socks, the tubular nets that strain liquids during the oil production process.

Authorities have no leads on who may have left the oil filter socks in the abandoned auto shop in Noonan. They say the building's owner normally would have to pay for the cleanup but he was charged with felony larceny in an unrelated incident and hasn't been located.

North Dakota has faced increased problems with illegal oil waste dumping in recent years as it has risen to become the nation's No. 2 oil producer, behind Texas. Filter socks can become contaminated with naturally occurring radiation and are banned for disposal in North Dakota. Oil companies are supposed to haul them to approved waste facilities in other states, such as Montana, Colorado and Idaho, which allow a higher level of radioactivity in their landfills.

It's doubtful anyone responsible for illegally dumping the radioactive oil field waste will be found, said Dave Glatt, chief of North Dakota Department of Health's environmental health section.

"Law enforcement is pursuing the responsible party but I'm not holding a lot of hope," he said.

North Dakota doesn't have a special fund aimed at cleaning up oil field waste. Instead, the state will be allowed tap into another fund meant for plugging and reclaiming abandoned oil wells. That fund is paid for with oil company fees.

Glatt did not know the estimated cost of the cleanup.

Glatt said the contractor, which also will be working on reclaiming abandoned oil wells, could begin work 10 days after being announced on Monday. The state allows a 10-day period to challenge the selection of a contractor, he said.

"Once that's done, Noonan would be the first priority," Glatt said. "We want to get it properly disposed of as soon as we can."

North Dakota officials and lawyers had been mulling whether the oil well reclamation fund could be used for cleaning up the Noonan site for several days, and Glatt said he didn't expect a decision for at least two weeks.

State Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, said Democrats are working on legislation that would either make clear that the oil well reclamation fund could be used for cleaning up oil waste or would establish another fund to "rapidly address" future incidents. The proposal also will attempt to create a "meaningful" way to track oil field waste, he said.

"The fact that we have been humming and hawing on who is supposed to pay for this cleanup demonstrates a total failure," Schneider said. "It's not acceptable to just let this radioactive waste sit there and fester. That's not something a responsible state government does."

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