Montana legislative committee drops objection to landfill limits on radioactive waste

After getting a month’s worth of constituents’ phone calls, Montana’s legislators decided not to interfere with a rule that would limit the amount of radiation allowed in state landfills.

On Wednesday, the interim Environmental Quality Council decided against objecting to a proposed rule limiting the radioactivity of oil-industry waste, called TENORM, that would be allowed into Montana landfills.

Many people in Missoula and eastern Montana breathed a sigh of relief.

“I was a little surprised but very pleasantly surprised,” Plentywood area rancher Laurel Clawson told the Missoula Current.

A month ago, Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, asked the Environmental Quality Council to stop the Department of Environmental Quality rule-making process while the committee members decided whether they’d accept the TENORM rule. Legislative committees can’t rewrite rules, but they can delay creation and implementation of rules.

However, the DEQ process has already gone on with lots of public input for more than three years. Many people didn’t want any more delays.

“This means a lot to our county that the TENORM rules will be enacted and that our county will be safer because of it,” Sidney resident Patty Whitford told the EQC.

For about the past seven years, Montana DEQ had guidance – not a rule – that limited TENORM radioactivity to 50 picocuries per gram of waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was supposed to set federal limits, but since 2017, the Trump administration has refused to do so, so the responsibility fell to the states.

Some common items emit radiation at very low levels, including bananas and brazil nuts at about 5 pCi/g and coffee and granite countertops at 27 pCi/g. Some underground minerals are radioactive, so mining brings up naturally radioactive material, or NORM, which is regulated above certain limits.

However, fracking pulls similar radioactive particles from deep in the earth but the process concentrates them, increasing their intensity, so it’s considered technologically enhanced or TENORM.

The majority of fracking occurs in North Dakota, so about 80% of the waste going to Montana landfills would come from outside the state.

In 2017, DEQ proposed a rule that, among other things, limited TENORM to 50 pCi/g, a level considered safe for workers by a few scientific studies, including a 2016 study from Argonne National Laboratories. The limit would apply to the Missoula landfill and a few landfills in eastern Montana that are equipped to deal with hazardous waste.

The DEQ put the limit out to public comment and got pushback from the Montana Petroleum Association and a few landfill owners. When DEQ then drafted a rule last year increasing the limit to 200 pCi/g, Montanans wondered why the limit jumped to four times what had originally been proposed.

The majority of public comment was opposed to the high amount, especially since North Dakota only recently set its limit at 50 piC/g and still has no landfill that will take the waste, partly because county commissions refuse to grant the permits. Montanans didn’t want the environmental hazards and didn’t want to be North Dakota’s dumping ground.

Earlier this year, DEQ reversed its decision and returned the limit to 50 piC/g. After taking public comment, the agency was preparing to finalize the rule when the Montana Petroleum Association asked the Environmental Quality Council to weigh in last month.

Last month, the members of the Environmental Quality Council were unprepared to assess the rule, being unfamiliar with its long history and relatively new science. So, a dozen commenters tried to educate them during the April hearing and later with phone calls throughout the month. On Wednesday, several legislators mentioned all the calls they’d received.

The public input had an effect. The objection would have died automatically if the council didn’t renew it Wednesday, but the council purposely voted 12-2 to withdraw the objection.

Missoula Valley Water Quality District manager Travis Ross thanked the committee for listening to the comments and for deciding to let the rule go forward.

Clawson said county commissioners in eastern Montana had also been educating themselves. So, if anything, more people are aware of the issue.

“Our Sheridan County commissioners studied up on the issue within the last month and decided they were in alignment with Richland County commissioners and wrote a letter to that effect to the EQC,” Clawson told the Current. “I think every member (of the EQC), including Vice Chair Lang, took the time to educate themselves and realized how vital parity with North Dakota would be.”

But not everyone on the Environmental Quality Council was convinced. Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, and Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, voted against letting the objection drop.

Gunderson said those who opposed the higher 200 pCi/g limit had based their arguments mostly on emotion, not science, so he wasn’t convinced.

“I’ve reached out to the state of North Dakota, and they have come up with a four-member panel that is looking into TENORM and making sure that we find common ground as we reach across the border. We’ve invited members from Wyoming’s legislature to do the same,” Gunderson said. “We need to continue this. The standards need to be looked at.”

The DEQ must send the rule to the Secretary of State by the end of July for it to be finalized. It’s unlikely that other delays will occur before then. However, those who want higher radiation limits could try to introduce a bill when the Legislature convenes in 2021.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.