Montana’s Radioactive Waste Legacy

Photograph Source: Tar Sands Blockade – CC BY 2.0

One label Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock won’t have to worry about being stuck with is “environmentalist.” His outdated support for coal in the face of a global warming crisis and his “leadership” on the massive and ongoing deforestation of public lands under the phony rubric of the Bush-era “Healthy Forests Initiative” are bad enough. But now, in the twilight of his time in charge of the state’s executive branch, his Department of Environmental Quality is promulgating administrative rules to allow Montana landfills to accept radioactive waste from out-of-state fracking operations.

There are a lot of drawbacks to being a lame duck politician. Since Bullock has time and again refused widespread calls for him to run against U.S. Sen. Steve Daines for the Senate — and his laughable presidential bid still leaves him at the bottom of the field — it seems obvious he’s intending to ride out his last year in office without worrying about his political future.

And true enough, political opponents don’t have much leverage on incumbents without the threat of a pending election. But the other side of that coin is that being a lame duck frees one to take positions and actions that could be risky if weighed on the scale of electoral politics.

In this particular case, Bullock could be standing up for what has consistently been called “the last best place” by ensuring the toughest standards in the nation for landfill disposal of radioactive fracking waste — or by prohibiting the disposal of radioactive out-of-state wastes entirely. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening and the potential for long-term damage to our environment should concern all Montanans.

Most Montanans could credibly question why Montana should take any of North Dakota’s radioactive wastes given that North Dakota has plenty of room to store its waste from the Bakken fracking operations. Since North Dakota makes the profits from fracking, it should responsibly take care of the subsequent problems — and make no mistake, radioactive wastes from fracking operations are a very real problem.

As noted in a recent report, “In addition to groundwater contamination, radiation is a safety concern for landfill workers. For them, the risk of radiation increases if they inhale TENORM (technologically enhanced radioactive material) dust, and lung cancer is a primary associated hazard.”

What could possibly be worth exposing Montana’s citizens to the long-lasting and lethal effects of radioactive fracking waste? The answer is the profits to be derived by a few landfill operators and some trucking companies and railroads that would ship the waste.

Currently much of the Bakken’s radioactive waste is being deposited in a landfill near Glendive that is owned by a Colorado company. The problem may not be confined to eastern Montana, however, since Missoula’s Republic Services landfill is permitted to take radioactive wastes that could be delivered by rail. And since the pending regulations allow much higher radioactivity and more lax landfill standards than other states, Montana could wind up as the destination for radioactive fracking waste from all over the country.

Governor Bullock was a teenager in 1980 and may not remember that Montanans passed Initiative 84 to prohibit the disposal of radioactive waste in Montana from mining or milling ore. The vote on a 1982 initiative to overturn that ban failed spectacularly with 76% of the electorate voting “no.”

Bullock’s choice is crystal clear. In his last year in office he can leave Montana with a glow-in-the-dark radioactive legacy. Or he can stand up for what the vast majority of Montanans have already approved — which is keeping Montana from becoming the radioactive waste dump for the nation.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.