Two weeks ago, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) finalized rules that will govern radioactive oil waste disposal in Montana. Crafting these protections took more than six years, and was driven largely by members of the Northern Plains Resource Council of Billings.
“Plain and simple, these protections would not be law if it weren’t for the determination of Montanans who refused to let our land, water, and livelihoods be sacrificed,” said Maggie Copeland, a Northern Plains member.
Copeland lives along the road to Montana’s only operating radioactive waste landfill near Glendive.
Montana currently has one landfill that actively accepts radioactive oil waste: Oaks Disposal, located outside Glendive. Sites in Missoula, Plentywood, Culbertson, Great Falls, and Baker have also been granted permits for radioactive oil waste, while a proposed landfill for the Sidney area is currently on hold.
The rulemaking began in 2013 and was prompted by local residents in eastern Montana. Since that time, citizens made their case to the DEQ through seven rule drafts, three public comment periods, four public hearings, two virtual hearings during COVID-19 quarantine, and comments and testimony from thousands of eastern Montanans.
“We’ve been at this for over six years,” continued Copeland. “The industry used every tactic they could to try and derail the hard work of local people. I’m relieved we finally got these over the finish line. Thank you to the thousands of Montanans who stood up to protect this place we all love.”
The rules were crafted to match North Dakota’s protections around radioactive oil waste, where the vast majority of the waste dumped in Montana originates. North Dakota currently has no landfills permitted to accept radioactive waste.
One of the most relevant rules is the “radioactivity limit,” which determines the maximum radioactivity level that landfills are allowed to accept. Advocates of the rules wanted Montana’s limit to be set at 50 picocuries per gram, identical to the rules in North Dakota.
Those Montanans were shocked in the fall of 2019 when the DEQ proposed raising Montana’s allowable level of radioactivity to 200 picocuries per gram of radium – four times North Dakota’s accepted levels. A limit at that level would have made eastern Montana a dumping ground for radioactive oil waste from North Dakota and around the region, according to thousands of Montanans who packed hearing rooms and flooded the DEQ with comments.
After the public outcry, the DEQ responded by returning Montana’s radioactivity limit back to 50 picocuries per gram, in line with North Dakota. The rules were expected to become law this spring.
In April, however, the rulemaking hit yet another roadblock, when Senator Mike Lang (R-Malta) raised an objection at the Environmental Quality Council, an interim committee of the Montana legislature. Northern Plains members ultimately persuaded the committee to reverse course and withdraw their objection by a vote of 13–2.
“I think the rulemaking process was a perfect illustration of how an active, informed citizenry is essential to governance,” said Northern Plains member Laurel Clawson, who ranches near Plentywood, close to a site permitted for radioactive waste disposal.
“The recently adopted rules allow the energy industry to flourish to the same extent it does in surrounding states, while protecting ag-based industries and, as importantly, the health of Montana’s people and environment,” continued Clawson.