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Montana Proposes State's First Regulations For Radioactive Waste Disposal

Patty Whitford stands in front of the pond on her property just outside Sidney, Montana.
Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
Patty Whitford stands in front of the pond on her property just outside Sidney, Montana.

Montana proposed regulations on Friday that outline what facilities need to do to dispose of radioactive waste while also monitoring for environmental side effects.

If approved, these regulations may be the first of their kind in the state.

The regulations are the second major revision since the Montana Department of Environmental Quality started the process to regulate radioactive waste from oil and gas production two years ago.

While Montana has a radioactivity limit of 50 picocuries per gram, it doesn't have a formal set of rules regulating Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material, or TENORM, a common byproduct of energy production.

TENORM is both defined and regulated at a state level. Some states have rules about TENORM disposal and others do not.

DEQ writes that ingesting or breathing in TENORM could have negative health effects.

These proposed regulations would be Montana's first formal attempt at defining how facilities should dispose of TENORM.

Friday's draft regulations would raise the maximum limit of picocuries to 200 at the facility gate with an average of 50 picocuries annually.

Waste & Underground Tank Management Bureau Chief Ed Thamke feels fairly confident about this latest draft.

"We've spent a lot of time, we've done a lot of research, we've worked with a lot of professionals to come up with a viable and sensible approach to this, and that's why we've proposed the levels that we have," he says.

Patty Whitford is one of the people who gave DEQ input on the draft regulations. She's a member of environmental advocacy organization Northern Plains Resource Council, which has been pushing for TENORM regulations for years now.

Whitford owns a few acres of land just outside of Sidney, in eastern Montana. She shares it with her husband, a handful of horses, a small dog, and Blackjack, an aggressively friendly black cat.

Down in the valley below her house, cars and trucks buzz past.

Whitford says many of those trucks are driving to and from oilfields in North Dakota.

Last year, Whitford and other members of the community used citizen zoning to block a landfill just across this highway.

The North Dakota-based company would have accepted radioactive waste from oil and gas development activities like fracking and taken up roughly 650 acres.

Whitford unlocks the gate to her back yard, where her horses wander around.

Down a steep hill, there's a pond that she says is a watering hole for local ducks, geese, and deer.

"This is the reason why I'm so adamant about surface water and storm runoff," she says. "This little bit of heaven is ours."

She's afraid a landfill would endanger it.

"One wreck of a semi tipping over, it's contaminated. The dust that is lifted into the air that's radioactive and sets down on our pond or on our own house could make it radioactive and contaminated," she says.

Whitford had hoped the radioactivity limit would remain at 50 picocuries in the new regulations.

"Because that is the same as North Dakota's, so there is no advantage to bringing all of North Dakota's radioactive material to be disposed of in Montana," she says.

For some perspective, a fact sheet from DEQ shows that naturally occurring radioactive material is found in bananas at 4 picocuries and coffee at 27.

Right now, there's only one active landfill that accepts TENORM in Montana. Oak Disposal Services is located in Lindsay, southwest of Sidney.

Oak Manager Mark Franks also owns a restaurant in Glendive.

"This is my backyard, too, and I sure as hell don't want contamination spread in my hunting areas or whatever," he says. "So, I take the rules and even more so than the rules serious with our operations so that doesn't happen."

He says he's ready to follow any and all regulations DEQ puts in place.

At the same time, he believes the state could go higher than a maximum of 50 picocuries.

"The low levels that we take now, yeah, I personally think we could probably take a lot hotter stuff," he says.

If these new regulations go through as is, Oak Disposal Services may be able to do that.

Some of the other proposed regulations detailed in the 31-page document include requiring companies to work with DEQ's Water Protection Bureau to establish a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan.

It also suggests monitoring air at the facility boundary and a third-party sampling of groundwater near the facilities.

The public has 60 days to submit comment on the proposed TENORM regulations. The deadline is October 21.

According to the DEQ website, the public can submit comments in writing to Sandy Scherer, Legal Secretary, Department of Environmental Quality, 1520 E. Sixth Avenue, P.O. Box 200901, Helena, Montana 59620-0901, faxed to 406-444-4386 or emailed to

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.