I’m a fourth-generation farmer/rancher near Glendive. My family lives and ranches downstream from Montana’s first (and only) operational landfill for radioactive oil waste: Oaks Disposal, which opened in 2013.
When the landfill first opened, trucks carrying radioactive oil waste — most of it from North Dakota — spilled constantly along our road.
We reported it to the state but heard little in response. We saw enormous metal objects transported to this landfill, making us concerned that the liner could be punctured, allowing waste to pollute soil and groundwater. We wondered how the landfill was handling excess liquids when our area got heavy rains.
Our questions were dismissed. “Trust us,” the state said. “Everything’s fine.”
We also learned that radioactive oil waste — in fact, all waste from the oil and gas industry — is exempt from federal protections. So we went to work in attempts to turn a bad situation into something present and future generations could sustain. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) agreed that there was a need for rules specific to radioactive oil waste.
Working with fellow Northern Plains Resource Council members in eastern Montana, we got to work educating ourselves and figuring out what rules were needed to protect our water, land and livelihoods. The learning curve was steep, but we proved everyday people can tackle even deeply complicated matters.
After years of a long, slow rulemaking, the DEQ pulled an 11th hour bait-and-switch: they suddenly wanted to quadruple our state’s radioactivity limit. The agency proposed raising the limit from 50 picocuries per gram to 200, while North Dakota’s limit would remain at 50. This came after years of public comment from Montanans east and west, requesting safe standards that matched the level of protection offered in North Dakota.
Weaker protections in Montana would position us to forever be North Dakota’s dumping ground.
More disturbing, we learned this fall that the groundwater around Oaks Disposal is already showing signs of pollution from the landfill. How could DEQ weaken protections when the one landfill accepting this waste is contaminating water?
So we got organized. Myself, other Northern Plains members and Montanans — from Plentywood to Missoula — wrote comments, did research, drove long distances to hearings, and talked to our neighbors. Together, we urged DEQ to bring the radioactivity limit back down to match North Dakota’s.
We come from different places and backgrounds, but we share a vision for our state. This place we call home — it’s not worth the risk. Montana deserves better. And if we don’t take care of this place, no one else will.
The result? We’ve — nearly — done it. In late January, the DEQ announced that they’re lowering the radioactivity limit back down to 50 picocuries per gram.
As a downstream rancher from Oaks Disposal, I cannot overstate how much this means to us. It gives us peace of mind. It restores our faith in the power of regular people to make a difference. Most importantly, it protects our land and Montana for generations to come.
I’m grateful to Governor Bullock, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, DEQ Director Shaun McGrath, and the rest of the DEQ staff for these changes. Thank you for listening to us. We will not forget it.
But the lower radioactivity limit isn’t final. It’s still just a proposal — and one that’s up for public comment. We need your help to cross the finish line of our years-long effort for strong standards for radioactive oil waste.
Please consider submitting a public comment to the DEQ in support of their latest changes, and reminding the state that Montana is not North Dakota’s dumping ground. Without the changes they’ve made, Montanans will be left holding the bag for industry’s disregard.
Comments are due by 5 p.m. on Monday, March 2, and can be submitted at www.northernplains.org/oilwaste.
Seth Newton is a rancher and farmer near Glendive and a member of Northern Plains Resource Council, a grassroots conservation and family agriculture group.