NORM: North Dakota's Solution For North Dakota's Challenge

Radiation or radioactivity: They are terms that evoke a certain sense of concern or anxiety among most. For the Bakken and NORM regulations, both terms are important to understand.
By Tessa Sandstrom | February 06, 2015

Radiation or radioactivity: They are terms that evoke a certain sense of concern or anxiety among most. If you are a child of the 80s or 90s, we can’t help but think of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or other mutations. Others may think of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four or the Incredible Hulk—all superheroes who were transformed by radiation. Nearly every generation is familiar with Godzilla. Radiation is perceived as something unnatural created by humans.

What few people realize, however, is just how common and natural radioactivity is, especially when we are discussing Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials, or NORM. In truth, it is everywhere—our air, water, soil and food. It’s about as natural and organic as it gets, and it’s not likely to infuse anyone (or thing) with special powers any time soon.

But that hasn’t stopped concern over NORM as it relates to oil and gas development. A few high-profile cases involving illegal dumping of filter socks elevated the discussion for appropriate disposal of NORM, but it has also perpetuated the misconceptions about radiation.

So what is NORM? Naturally occurring radioactive materials are radioactive substances that exist in all natural media as mentioned. NORM as it relates to oil and gas development includes sediment, silt and other particulates that are brought from North Dakota’s formations up to two miles down to the surface during the drilling process. It is not something that is put into the ground by humans; it is simply bits of earth and water taken out of the ground.

These particulates can become concentrated in pipes, holding tanks and filter socks. Because this concentration is done by human activities, it then becomes called technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials or TENORM. Again, it is not something that is added by the industry, simply rocks taken from below the surface, brought up, before being filtered out or settled into equipment.

If this radiation is concentrated, however, is it dangerous? The short answer is no. Just because an object contains radiation does not mean it poses a risk. What matters is whether that radiation is absorbed.

This does not mean the industry does not want to properly dispose of its waste, however. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Bad players that have illegally disposed of TENORM have given the entire industry a bad, undeserved reputation when it comes to NORM, and our hope is to level the playing field by putting clear, concise regulations in place that would allow for the proper disposal of TENORM from oil and gas development.

Currently, all waste above 5 picocuries must be hauled out of state to licensed facilities which actually may pose a greater hazard to the public because it requires a large number of trucks hauling this waste longer distances. This may increase the potential for accidents, not to mention the stress on our infrastructure. Having disposal facilities within the state would also help cut costs at a time when oil prices are low. It also means being responsible for our own operations and being a good neighbor. This TENORM is generated in North Dakota and it should be safely and responsibly disposed of in North Dakota.

The North Dakota Department of Health has proposed rules that will increase the limit for disposal in special waste landfills from 5 to 50 picocuries. At public hearings held in January, there were some concerns about this, but they were based mainly in myth.

Just because the level is higher, does not mean the danger is higher. For starters, 50 picocuries is well below the level of radiation we might receive from everyday items, one of which may very well be your own home. Second, radiation only poses a risk if it is absorbed. For this to happen, the TENORM associated with oil and gas development must be ingested or inhaled.

To put it into context, a donut contains 200 calories. Let’s liken that to radiation. Those calories cannot be absorbed by simply sitting next to the donut or touching it; it must be eaten. Once that donut is eaten, those calories are absorbed and you might gain weight as a result. This would be similar to radiation dose equivalent. Oil field TENORM is the same way.

The chances of a person, especially from the general public to ever eat or inhale TENORM is very, very unlikely, but we want to prevent that possibility from occurring and that starts with proper handling and disposal regulations.

In-state disposal of TENORM will be a major benefit to both the industry and state. Trepidation about radioactivity still exists, however, primarily due to the misconceptions surrounding it. We encourage you to help correct these misconceptions by sharing this and other information available at http://northdakotaoilcan.com/NDenergyfacts/NORM/ and encourage the North Dakota Department of Health to consider regulations that will allow for in-state disposal of waste and thus, a North Dakota solution to a North Dakota challenge.

Author: Tessa Sandstrom
Communications Manager,
North Dakota Petroleum Council
tsandstrom@ndoil.org
701-557-7744