North Dakota leaves it socks laying around — and they’re radioactive


Did you ever do the laundry and find that you’ve lost a sock…or two? It’s one of the great mysteries of modern life — but at least it’s one that we can laugh off. But when the oil industry of North Dakota starts losing its socks — now that’s a completely different story.  That’s because the oil socks of North Dakota are chock full of TERM — technologically enhanced radioactive material.

This is one of the more disturbing stories that you’re likely to see this week:

A heaping mound of black trash bags stuffed with radioactive nets that strain liquids during the oil production process — commonly known as “oil filter socks” — has been found in an abandoned North Dakota gas station, state officials confirmed Wednesday, in what may be the biggest instance of illegal oil socks dumping the state has ever seen.

Police last week discovered the illegally dumped oil socks piled throughout the old gas station building and attached mechanic garage in the small town of Noonan, state Waste Management Director Scott Radig told ThinkProgress. The bags were covered in a layer of dust, Radig said, meaning they had probably been sitting in the building for some time.

The 4,000-square-foot building is owned by a felony fugitive named Ken Ward, who Radig said likely did independent work for the state’s booming oil and gas industry.

“I suspect that [Ward] was doing contract work for some oil company and he told them he would — I’m sure for a price — take these and properly dispose of them,” Radig speculated. “He did it the cheap way, took the money and took off.”

This has been my No. 1 issue over roughly a quarter century of practicing environmental law — radioactive contamination — and so this was a problem that I could see coming from miles away, as North Dakota’s Bakken field becomes the epicenter of America’s oil boom. Truth be told, the same two things happen anywhere that oil is produced in this country: 1) radiation from the rock formations under the earth gets yanked up to the surface during the production process, gunking up pipe, filters and anything else that it touches and 2) the oil industry will do whatever it can to evade the clean-up costs — and responsibility — for the mess it created.

That said, what’s happening in North Dakota is pretty extreme. According to news accounts this week, trash bags stuffed full of these radioactive oil socks are increasingly turning up in the state, which only recently saw oil production take off and which doesn’t have a strong regulatory structure to take on the oil industry. Although many of the oil socks are shipped to approved landfills out of state, there have also been incidents of fly-by-night operators disposing of them illegally.

In this case of the gas station, state officials say that radiation levels from the dumped socks are above background. They seem more concerned about the crime of illegal dumping than the threat of radiation exposure, but I would not necessarily agree with that. I’ve handled numerous cases over the years involving workers from the Mississippi and Louisiana oil patches who’ve been poisoned and in some cases made seriously ill by working around radioactive scale and residue without the proper equipment or training. If officials in North Dakota don’t start taking the threat seriously, that sad history will be repeated.

For more on the recent case of illegal dumping in North Dakota, check out:

To find out more about recent controversy over oil and radioactive dumping in North Dakota, please read:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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