DEQ issues warning for improper frac sand disposal
By Eric Killela
Ranger-Review Staff Writer
Six companies have been accused of illegally transporting waste bulk bags of frac sand from the Northern Improvement site along Montana Highway 16 to the Rice & Sons property at 122 Road 555 in Glendive, according to a violation letter from the state Department of Environmental Quality.
On Nov. 22, the state sent the letter to Northern Improvement, a Fargo-based road construction company; Rice & Sons, a Glendive agricultural business; Liberty Oilfield Services, a Billings crude and natural gas group; E-Style Transport, a Williston trucking outfit; ChangQing Proppant, a Texas manufacturer of proppant for hydraulic fracturing; and Fila Oilfield Services, a Houston logistics crew. The letter explained that disposal of materials including bulk bags and frac sand at the Rice property was a violation of the state’s Solid Waste Management Act.
In his letter, DEQ Environmental Enforcement Specialist Nathaniel Saladin wrote that the accused had to remove the materials from the Rice property and dispose of it at a licensed waste facility by Dec. 29. Saladin pointed out that frac sand remaining at the Northern Improvement site “is considered a waste if it will not be used for its intended purpose and the storage of waste frac sand at an unlicensed facility is a violation of the SWMA.” He also wrote that the accused had to submit a compliance plan and schedule how the materials remaining on the Northern Improvement site would be disposed of or managed by Dec. 29. Violations of the SWMA may result in the “issuance of an administrative order and assessment of penalties,” according to the state.
The recent government activity followed a series of complaints from District Sanitarian Kevin Peña, who called Saladin on Sept. 15 to say that Fila sought to remove the materials from Northern Improvement and place it in a clean fill on the Rice property. Saladin’s investigation didn’t address the frac sand on the Northern Improvement site until he learned the material “contains a manufactured ceramic proppant, and both the frac sand and the ceramic proppant contain a radionuclide,” he wrote in his letter. And since the material consisted of a frac sand-and-ceramic proppant mixture, it needed to be used for its intended purpose or disposed.
Nearly two weeks later, on Sept. 26, Saladin called Rice & Sons to say that the “frac sand was not clean fill and thus could not be disposed of on the Rice property,” according to his letter. But then on Oct. 7, Peña told Saladin that E-Style Transport, under the direction of Fila, “had transported several loads of frac sand from the [Northern Improvement] property to the Rice property.”
The next day, Saladin again talked with Rice & Sons, whose owners said they “did not accept the frac sand on their property and would like it to be removed.”
All went quiet until Nov. 28 when Saladin, upon request from the accused, moved the due date for the removal of materials at the Rice property from Dec. 29 to Jan. 20, 2018, according to an email between Peña and Saladin obtained by the Ranger-Review. It’s Saladin’s understanding that the waste would be transported to Oaks Disposal Services near Lindsay.
Earlier this week, Northern Improvement Director Greg McCormick told the Ranger-Review that “the party involved is aware” of the state’s letter. He didn’t comment any further. Neither Fila nor Rice & Sons did not return phone calls as of press time.
Abandoned material first drew attention
While the DEQ’s violation letter may encourage movement among the accused, the issue of bulk bags and frac sand at the Northern Improvement site is nothing new.
Last year, the Ranger-Review reported that Peña had been receiving complaints about the abandoned materials at the site between Highland Park and Hollecker Lake since August 2013. He had long asked the crews on location to clean up and tried contacting the company on numerous occasions, but he never got a reply, even when the property fell vacant in late 2015.
In a more recent interview, Peña said he had noticed “a lot of improvement” after ITC Grain moved onto the vacant site in the summer of 2016 (the company leases land from Northern Improvement).
“I made a visit over there and thanked them,” he said. “I thought that was going to be the solution. They would respond to the DEQ’s concerns and we were going to see improvements. That was my hope.”
But in October 2016, Peña spotted a pile of materials on the north end of the Northern Improvement site near the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line. The next several months were packed with back-and-forth phone calls between Peña and Saladin, each asking the other for signs of improvements.
There were none.
So, why didn’t the state enforce change then?
“They were questioning whether the frac sand was considered waste and could be used for its intended purpose,” Peña said. “I was thinking then, it’s not useful when it’s mixed with native soil because there’s no economic way to sift through the sand for the purity and quality anyone operating a drilling rig would want. It should’ve been no question.”
Material confirmed to be radioactive
In retelling the recent chain of events, Peña said he remembered that Fila called him in August to say that they made an agreement with a local landowner to haul frac sand to the property and bury it without the bulk bags.
“I felt like, ‘If DEQ is okay with it, then okay,’” he said.
But a month later, Saladin called him in a panic. “Holy cow. Holdup. That frac sand is radioactive. Don’t let them touch that sand,” Peña said, recalling Saladin’s words.
Peña added: “I got a little frustrated because I’ve said that multiple times in our conversations. Then finally, it’s this big issue.”
Despite his resentments, Peña brought a city of Glendive-owned geiger counter out to the Northern Improvement site to measure ionizing radiation. But he couldn’t get the instrument to work. So, he called Oaks Disposal to borrow one. Instead, staff there told him that they already knew the frac sand was radioactive, because they had received shipments from the Northern Improvement site and had the analytical data to prove it.
On Oct. 23, Oaks Disposal sent Peña the data showing the frac sand was indeed radioactive, between 15-18 picocuries per gram (pCi/g). Once he received the information, he told Saladin and the state relayed that message to Fila directing them to reroute the frac sand, along with the haul bags, from the Rice property to Oaks Disposal. The next day, Saladin called him to say that Fila would start hauling early that morning.
But that didn’t happen.
A manager at ITC Grain called Peña to report that the first batch of frac sand was removed from the site at 4:45 p.m. Oaks Disposal called and told him that the first truck didn’t arrive until 5:45 p.m. and the driver only dropped off two loads before the facility closed at 8 p.m.
Peña felt like a detective chasing leads. And on the morning of Oct. 25, he followed up a tip that Fila had hauled all night.
“The driver apparently told someone that he didn’t go to sleep until 6 a.m. and that he hauled through the night to a gravel pit further north on Highway 16,” he said. “When I heard that, I was upset to say the least. We’ve been working on this for almost two years. We were finally going to get some movement and get things cleaned up and then they did something dirty.”
Peña was agitated when he called DEQ Enforcement Program Manager Chad Anderson to say that he wanted to shut down the Fila-directed hauling operation. Acting on information received from the state, he made attempts to call Rice & Sons to verify whether loads had been hauled to the their property. Two days later, he met with one of the landowners, who showed him an on-site gravel pit filled with seven to 10 truck loads of haul bags and frac sand.
On Oct. 31, Saladin said that he contacted Fila, which promised to transport the bulk bags and frac sand to a proper disposal site. Peña wrote an email to the state and asked for enforcement action. In the email, after applauding Saladin for his efforts, he wrote that he understood “the process is a long one, and while I realize the chance exists that the issue is solved before enforcement is complete, I honestly do not see that happening. The [representatives] in this case have been dismissive, avoidant, and dishonest to say the least. It is time they are held accountable for those actions.”
This week, Peña told the Ranger-Review that he hoped things would change for the better.
“I live here,” he said. “I have to answer to my citizens. It frustrates me that they tried to do something illegal. They claim it’s a miscommunication. I don’t think that’s the case. But I’m mildly optimistic that DEQ’s actions after the dumping incident have helped us to turn a corner towards a positive outcome in the near future.”
Reach Eric Killelea at email@example.com.