The Bismarck Tribune, Bismarck, Nov. 19, 2013
Questions on radioactive waste
Drilling and fracking oil wells generate radioactive waste. The amount of that waste generated in the Bakken exceeds North Dakota's 5 picocuries per gram standard, and can't be disposed of in the state. It gets trucked to Colorado, Idaho, Texas, and some recently to Montana.
How much and how hot the waste is depends on the well and the fracking. But with as many wells as are being drilled in western North Dakota, it's a serious issue.
The North Dakota Petroleum Council has asked the state Health Department to raise its standard. It's a request that deserves consideration.
The state Department of Mineral Resources, Health Department and oil industry formed a task force in February to look at the issue and develop a study.
Argonne National Laboratories of Illinois will do the $180,000 study. The company will be paid by the Petroleum Council. The parameters of the study will be designed by the Health Department, which we have been told will ensure there's no conflict of interest.
For industry, the issue is cost. Estimates are that 75 tons of potentially radioactive filter socks are generated each day. Safely hauling that amount over a long distance isn't cheap. Disposing of the radioactive waste generated in North Dakota locally would be less expensive. And there are environmental risks associated with long hauls and potential accidents.
For the people of North Dakota, the issue is safety — public and environmental. Most states that take radioactive waste top out at 400 pCi per gram. Disposing of such material requires a great degree of sophistication in engineering, inspection and maintenance. It's expensive and, by its nature, radioactive waste remains a risk for decades and more.
The study must provide credible information about the risks of disposing of radioactive waste. Don't expect a black-or-white final conclusion. Rather, expect a range of levels of risk and costs.
A final decision by the state will be a matter of informed judgment of risk.
Fortunately, the Health Department has taken a methodical, cautious approach to the study. Estimates are that it would take a year to complete the study and any process leading to rule changes. That's certainly better than rushing into things.
If the radioactive waste is created in North Dakota, then what is the state's responsibility, if any, in disposing of it? Can that radioactive waste be disposed of safely in North Dakota?
These are questions that must be answered. We think the state has a degree of responsibility. And the study should answer the second question: Can we do it safely?
The Forum, Fargo, Nov. 19, 2013
A change in pipeline regulation?
Call it an epiphany. Call it recognition of reality. Call it a smart read of rapidly evolving perceptions among North Dakotans.
Whatever the motivation or stimulus, Gov. Jack Dalrymple's decision to pay closer attention to pipeline safety is welcome news. The governor said he will form an advisory panel that will, among other things, consider whether the state should step up regulation in concert with appropriate federal regulators. It's a step in the right direction.
What happened? Why, in a state that often is stupidly proud of its lax regulatory regime, is the governor taking the lead in an effort that could, and should, hold to better account operators of oil, salt water and natural gas pipelines? A spate of bad news, that's why.
In the past couple of months, three stories put pipeline safety in a harsh spotlight. First, a crude oil line near Tioga sprung a leak that not only spilled more than 26,000 barrels of oil onto the land but also was not detected quickly or reported to the public for weeks. Second, an investigative report revealed that some 300 oil "spills" of various sizes and impacts during a three-year period were not reported to the public. Third, a report found that spills of toxic saltwater, which can be more damaging to soil and water than oil, totaled some 2.3 million gallons in the past 22 months. The toxic salt water is a byproduct of oil and gas development.
All the reports came from oil boom country. The news stories caught the attention of North Dakotans in every part of the state. They have started to understand the major (and until now unreported) damage oil development is visiting on the western landscape. As a result, regulators and politicians are reacting.
The governor gets it. In announcing his intentions for a pipeline safety advisory panel, he said: "I think we should be very interested in this because obviously anytime you have a 20,000-barrel spill, you know, that changes everyone's attitude toward possible problems."
It's too late for spill and leak damage already done. But it's not too late to get tougher than the state has been about demanding technological fixes and other means to prevent as many pipeline failures as possible. The state's political leaders and regulation officials, led by the governor, seem to be getting the message.
Grand Forks Herald, Grand Forks, Nov. 18, 2013
Students lose if board goes away
Battle lines haven't yet formed for next year's vote on whether to replace the North Dakota Board of Higher Education.
But once the campaigns get underway, here's a strategy tip for the pro-board side:
Mobilize the students.
Because if the eight-member board gets replaced by a three-member commission, students will lose their seat at one of the most important tables in the state.
These days, more than 71 percent of public colleges and universities have student members on their governing boards, the Association of Governing Boards reports.
North Dakota's state board is one — for now. "The governor shall appoint as the eighth member of the board a full-time resident student in good academic standing at an institution under the jurisdiction of the state board," the North Dakota Constitution declares.
But if the proposed amendment passes, students would lose that constitutional guarantee. There's no provision for a student to be a member of the three-member commission that would replace the board.
During a conversation with policymakers in Fargo last week, North Dakota State University student leaders showed they're already aware of the issue and sounded the alarm.
"Student leaders are also concerned they will lose their ability to contribute to policymaking and system governance if voters decide to replace the state Board of Higher Education with a three-member commission next fall," Forum News Service reported.
"'It's kind of an elephant in the room,' (student government commissioner Robert) Kringler said.
"Having a voting student member, who has 'as much say as the president or any other board member' is a powerful tool for students, he said."
Kringler's on to something. After all, why do so many university boards now have student members in the first place? Because students wanted, pressed for and have taken full advantage of the change. And now, they're understandably protective of it.
Those North Dakotans who hope to keep the current governance structure no doubt will have other cards to play. But they shouldn't neglect this one. College students in America are a potent force, and they've played a decisive role in our politics any number of times.