WASHBURN, N.D. — After two hours of hearing heartfelt testimony at the Washburn courthouse against a proposed oil field waste landfill — mostly fears of radioactive waste — the county zoning board decided it wouldn’t decide after all.
The McLean County Planning and Zoning Commission took the unprecedented step Monday of not giving either thumbs up or down, and passed the request from Great River Energy directly to the county commission.
In all other cases, the zoning board makes a recommendation to the county for action and chairman Richard Hultberg, who voted against the tactic, said he’d never seen it done before.
The non-action caused McLean County resident Jerry Tishmack to throw up his hands and say, “So everything we did here today was in vain?”
Tishmack referred to the two hours nearly 40 other residents spent listening and speaking about a plan by Great River Energy to modify its existing coal waste landfill into one capable of handling oil field waste.
The landfill is still almost empty after two decades because the company sells most of its flyash as a concrete additive, so it is planning to get county and state Health Department approval to improve the landfill with more lining, monitoring and leachate systems to meet standards for accepting oil field waste.
The site is northwest of Underwood and would be accessible off of U.S. Highway 83.
Zoning member Pam Link, who moved to refer the zoning request without a recommendation, said she’ll deal with it again as a county commissioner.
“I felt it should be pushed to the county. They (other zoning members) could have turned my motion down,” she said.
Because of the controversial nature of the request, the county will put off any decision until its July 16 meeting and will accept written comments until July 8.
County commissioner Steve Lee attended the meeting and said he would have liked to have seen a recommendation.
“That’s part of the job of that board,” Lee said.
Great River Energy’s Diane Stockdill explained the project and said she wanted to put several rumors to bed.
“We’re not taking radioactive waste. You can put that to bed, it’s not true. We’re not taking hazardous waste, that’s not true,” she said.
She said any radioactive waste will be limited to less than 5 picocuries, the threshold set by the state now. Radioactivity occurs normally in soils and leaches onto certain oil field equipment. Anything higher is required to be taken for proper disposal at facilities out of state.
However, some residents said they were concerned because the Health Department is considering raising the allowable limit for in-state disposal.
Mic Johnson of Underwood said the county should wait to take any action until the department makes its decision.
He said he feared if the state raises the allowable limit, it would automatically increase the level of radioactive waste that could go into the landfill.
Gene Wirtz, a member of the township board, said his board is solidly against the plan. He said the zoning board should look out for the health of its citizens, not the corporate well-being of a company.
“Why don’t they (Great River) haul it to Minnesota and put in their backyard and see how far they get in Minnesota?” he asked. Great River Energy is a distribution cooperative based in Minnesota with power plant production at the Coal Creek Stations.
Other worries people brought up were increased highway traffic — as many as 10,000 trucks a year from the oil fields to the landfill — and the potential for spills and accidents.
Sherwood Gibbs said he lives less than one-quarter of a mile from the landfill and said he feared he would hear the backup “beep, beep, beep” of heavy equipment if the landfill is open day and night.
“I can put up with it (now) because it’s a few weeks, or a month and they’re gone. This pit will be open for 16 years,” he said.
The zoning board did approve some amendments to its special waste conditions at the meeting. Most important to those in attendance is one that limits the landfill from accepting anything over 5 picocuries and requires another modification to its county permit if it were to accept a higher level of radioactive waste.
Other conditions are that the landfill can’t accept hydraulic fracture treatment waste, that the county can inspect records without a search warrant and that the operators would be responsible for spill cleanup if no driver or company could be identified.
Shirley Hassler of rural Underwood put a little levity into the mostly tense hearing.
Hassler said she was skeptical of the plastic liner that Great River Energy plans to add to augment the existing landfill, especially after reading that steel liners have failed in another state.
“Even my Tupperware doesn’t last for 40 years,” Hassler said.