Here’s a problematic fracking by-product that never occurred to me: radioactive socks.
When I first read the phrase I thought of of weary drillers trudging out of fracking fields late at night, invisible but for a glowing green inch of material between their shoes and trouser hems. But then I kept reading and discovered the socks in question were actually filter socks, which look like tube socks designed for an elephant.
When chemical-laced water is injected into the ground during a hydraulic fracturing operation, some of it returns to the surface and must be collected. The flowback contains water, chemicals, salts, metals and organic compounds; it all passes through filter socks, which capture the solid particles. The liquid is disposed of in various ways, and filter socks are disposed of at municipal and residual waste landfills.
Unless they happen to be radioactive.
This is quite a problem in North Dakota, where naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) is common in certain parts of the Bakken shale. North Dakota landfills will not accept waste with radioactive levels higher than 5 picocuries per gram, and the average filter sock’s level ranges from five to eighty, although one did clock in at 374.
A year ago, after landfill Geiger counters began clicking incessantly, the government helpfully distributed pamphlets listing businesses that would accept radioactive waste. Since the nearest ones were in South Dakota, Colorado and Utah, this has led to a spate of radioactive sock dumping.
Thirty were found during a cleanup day at the Fort Berthold Reservation. A hundred were found in a Williston city garbage can. 250 were dropped into a container box near New Town and picked up by an unsuspecting trucker. Last spring, after the snow melted in Tioga, a “large sack of them” were found along a highway. “They appeared to have fallen off a truck,” reported a local paper, just like the radioactive rod that fell off a truck in Texas, and the radioactive gauge that fell off a truck in West Virginia.
“There are only a few places that have facilities designed to take radioactive materials, and North Dakota is not one of them,” says Kurt Rhea, the CEO of the Colorado-based radioactive waste removal company Next Generation Solutions. Rhea’s company has contracts with certain companies fracking the Bakken shale; picking up a container of waste, trucking it out of state, and disposing with it properly costs about $8,000. He guesses that approximately 20% of North Dakota's radioactive waste is being disposed of properly. What about the rest?
“Good question,” he responds.
We’re talking about the infamous Bakken shale in North Dakota, often described as fracking’s Wild West, where the words “law” and “abiding” are not often paired. To put it into perspective, if I can’t get my 19-year-old son to transfer his dirty socks from his feet to his hamper, I fail to see how officials are going to get fracking companies to transfer their dirty socks from North Dakota to Utah.
Residents fear the North Dakota government may decide to deal with the problem by increasing the level of radioactive material accepted at local landfills, and/or opening sites that will store radioactive waste. This may cut down on the sock dumping, but at what price?
With NORM the new norm, which would be worse?