NOW OPEN: First-Ever Bakken NORM Disposal Site

Oaks Disposal Services LLC is now accepting oilfield naturally occurring radioactive material, 40-miles from the North Dakota border.
By Luke Geiver | September 06, 2013

When Jason LaQua, general manager of Oilfield Waste Logistics, heard about Oaks Disposal Services LLC on an early summer Friday afternoon, he was in his Culbertson, Mont., office.  By early morning the following Monday, he was in Lindsey, Mont., waiting in his vehicle, eager, excited and uncertain about meeting the team from Oaks Disposal Services. “My first reaction,” he says, upon hearing of the facility, “was that it was too good to be true.”

The facility, as LaQua understood, would be the first-ever landfill in Montana capable of disposing oilfield waste generated during the drilling and production process. He found out that Monday morning, what he had heard was true, and thanks to a former oilfield worker turned big-time farmer, OWL and other waste disposal firms in the Bakken oil and gas play can now dispose of naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). “This could be the single one biggest change in the Bakken in the last year and a half,” LaQua says.

His statement might sound overarching, but LaQua has a point. Until the Lindsey facility opened, oilfield waste such as drill cuttings, filter socks used during drilling and flowback material generated on well sites in North Dakota or Montana had to be shipped to Colorado or Idaho. Neither North Dakota nor Montana had an authorized, capable facility. For LaQua, the 650 miles his drivers don’t have to travel to dispose of material has changed his operational model immensely. His diesel costs have drastically decreased, along with vehicle maintenance and driver time. His customers may be even happier about the facility than LaQua, as the price to do business with OWL has dropped. “I don’t have the same amount of equipment, and it takes one day to get rid of a load and it used to take three days,” he says.

The reason for the long miles and drive time relates to the way the North Dakota Department of Health Oilfield Waste Management deals with oilfield waste. In the state, the maximum allowable limit for NORM is five picocuries per gram. LaQua says most proppants used in the drilling process contain more than five picocuries per gram before ever entering the ground. The Oaks facility is capable of disposing material containing NORM with up to 30 picocuries per gram, a measurement that shows the level of radioactive elements that naturally exist in the earth such as radon. 

Oaks Disposal Services History
In the early 1980s, Ross Oakland was working in the oilfields of Montana. Following a brief stint in the oil industry, he started a farming operation and today he considers himself a big-time agricultural operator. After witnessing a drilling operation adjacent to his property in Montana for several days, Oakland paid a visit to the well site to chat with the drilling operator. The conversation revealed the challenge that particular operator, like every other in the play, had with waste disposal.

Oakland decided to pursue a landfill facility capable of handling the material. After talking with the Department of Environmental Quality, Oakland says his early assumptions that he could find the money and write a check to the state to begin constructing the facility possible were inaccurate. “I’m a get-it-done-now type of guy,” he says.

To get the facility done, Oakland had to invest roughly $5 million and spend two years helping his consultants and engineering teams wade through the proper permitting and regulation processes required by the DEQ to make such a facility happen.

Kent, Wash.-based Northwest Lining and Geotextiles Inc., was brought in to design the facility. The firm had previously designed other landfills in Montana. The facility features a scale, an office and a detention pond that has been heavily engineered and lined. The lined portion of the facility is 23.1 acres, and features an impregnated liner, a 60 mil liner, a mesh liner and several levels of gravel. In total, Oakland devoted 130 acres to the facility. The location has several underground monitoring units that can assure the facility’s status now and well into the future. The facility has capacity to last 14 years or until reaching 2 million tons of waste. Each truck that comes into the landfill typically averages 25 tons. “We built it safe, we didn’t cut any corners. That is what all the oil companies wanted,” he said. And, Oakland believes that the facility could be expanded.

In addition to drill cuttings and other waste, the facility is capable of handling filter socks used to filter wastewater at drilling sites. The socks must be buried upon dumping within 24-hour period, Oakland says, to minimize the potential of wind or other weather relocating the material.

LaQua, the only service provider in the Bakken capable of disposing of filter socks at the Oaks facility, thanks to a contract spawned in that early morning meeting, couldn’t be happier about the addition of the filter sock disposal option, even though filter sock disposal is less than 1percent of his overall business.

The Future of Oaks
LaQua still can’t believe that Oakland was able to make the facility happen. The last Montana landfill before that took five years to go through the permitting and approval process, he says. “I was quite surprised when I found out it was a local farmer. I thought it would be a huge company,” he says of the entity that would make such a facility happen. “He accomplished what they [big companies] failed to do.”

The complex design of the site features gravel and liners to maintain the integrity of the facility and once full, Oakland says it will be in filled with gravel, soil and lined again before it is planted over with grass.

Oil companies and disposal services are now aware of the facility and the phones haven’t stopped ringing, Oakland adds. The first thing everyone wants to know is the type of liner used and if the facility was built right. Because Oakland and the engineers worked closely with the DEQ, calling and meeting frequently to make sure every step was done right, Oakland says he is confident that the facility will always live up to its billing.

The use of the facility may cost more than other typical landfills, but as LaQua says, it will change the way everyone does business in the Bakken. But, not for Oakland. Although he currently operates the facility, in part, he says, to gain an understanding of how to train future employees, he will always be a farmer. And, if his early phone calls regarding the facility are any indication, he will be a retired farmer. “It’s been a great experience,” he said of opening and running the landfill. “I have never advertised it for sale, and I have had five companies come in and negotiate and want to buy it.”

Author: Luke Geiver
Managing Editor, The Bakken magazine