Williston, N.D., a once sleepy prairie land, has turned into a place with thousands of available jobs. An oil boom has led to an influx in the town’s population and jobs. Rock Center’s Harry Smith reports.
By Nicholas Kusnetz, ProPublica
Oil drilling has sparked a frenzied prosperity in Jeff Keller’s formerly quiet corner of western North Dakota in recent years, bringing an infusion of jobs and reviving moribund local businesses.
But Keller, a natural resource manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, has seen a more ominous effect of the boom, too: Oil companies are spilling and dumping drilling waste onto the region’s land and into its waterways with increasing regularity.
Hydraulic fracturing — the controversial process behind the spread of natural gas drilling — is enabling oil companies to reach previously inaccessible reserves in North Dakota, triggering a turnaround not only in the state’s fortunes, but also in domestic energy production. North Dakota now ranks second behind only Texas in oil output nationwide.
The downside is waste — lots of it. Companies produce millions of gallons of salty, chemical-infused wastewater, known as brine, as part of drilling and fracking each well. Drillers are supposed to inject this material thousands of feet underground into disposal wells, but some of it isn’t making it that far.
According to data obtained by ProPublica, oil companies in North Dakota reported more than 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater or other fluids in 2011, about as many as in the previous two years combined. Many more illicit releases went unreported, state regulators acknowledge, when companies dumped truckloads of toxic fluid along the road or drained waste pits illegally.
Rock Center’s Harry Smith joins Brian Williams to answer viewer-submitted questions about Williston, the North Dakota town booming with jobs.
State officials say most of the releases are small. But in several cases, spills turned out to be far larger than initially thought, totaling millions of gallons. Releases of brine, which is often laced with carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals, have wiped out aquatic life in streams and wetlands and sterilized farmland. The effects on land can last for years, or even decades.
Keller has filed several complaints with the state during this time span after observing trucks dumping wastewater and spotting evidence of a spill in a field near his home. He was rebuffed or ignored every time, he said.
“There’s no enforcement,” said Keller, 50, an avid outdoorsman who has spent his career managing Lake Sakakawea, a reservoir created by damming the Missouri River. “None.”
State officials say they rely on companies to clean up spills voluntarily, and that in most cases, they do. Mark Bohrer, who oversees spill reports for the Department of Mineral Resources, the agency that regulates drilling, said the number of spills is acceptable given the pace of drilling and that he sees little risk of long-term damage.
Kris Roberts, who responds to spills for the Health Department, which protects state waters, agreed, but acknowledged that the state does not have the manpower to prevent or respond to illegal dumping.
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Still, advocates for landowners say they have seen little will, at either the state or federal level, to impose limits that could slow the pace of drilling.
Oil companies are drilling upwards of 200 wells each month in northwestern North Dakota, an area roughly twice the size of New Jersey.
North Dakota is pumping more than 575,000 barrels of oil a day now, more than double what the state produced two years ago. Expanded drilling in the state has helped overall U.S. oil production grow for the first time in a quarter century, stoking hopes for greater energy independence.
It has also reinvigorated North Dakota’s once-stagnant economy. Unemployment sits at 3 percent. The activity has reversed a population decline that began in the mid-1980s, when the last oil boom went bust.
The growth has come at a cost, however. At a conference on oil field infrastructure in October, one executive noted that McKenzie County, which sits in the heart of the oil patch and had a population of 6,360 people in 2010, required nearly $200 million in road repairs.
The number of spill reports, which generally come from the oil companies themselves, nearly doubled from 2010 to 2011. Energy companies report their spills to the Department of Mineral Resources, which shares them with the Health Department. The two agencies work together to investigate incidents.
Even with the new hires, the Department of Mineral Resources still has fewer field inspectors than agencies in other drilling states. Oklahoma, for example, which has comparable drilling activity, has 58 inspectors to North Dakota’s 19.
But the official data gives only a partial picture, Roberts said, missing an unknown number of unreported incidents.
He said truckers often dump their wastewater rather than wait in line at injection wells. The Department of Mineral Resources asks companies how much brine their wells produce and how much they dispose of as waste, but its inspectors don’t audit those numbers. Short of catching someone in the act, there’s no way to stop illegal dumping.
The Department of Mineral Resources and the Health Department have the authority to sanction companies that spill or dump fluids, but they rarely do.
The Department of Mineral Resources has issued just 45 enforcement actions over the last three years. Spokeswoman Alison Ritter could not say how many of those were for spills or releases, as opposed to other drilling violations, or how many resulted in fines.
Derrick Braaten, a Bismarck lawyer whose firm represents dozens of farmers and landowner groups, said his clients often get little support from regulators when oil companies damage their property.
State officials step in in the largest cases, he said, but let smaller ones slide. Landowners can sue, but most prefer to take whatever drillers offer rather than taking their chances in court.
“The oil company will say, that’s worth $400 an acre, so here’s $400 for ruining that acre,” Braaten said.
Daryl Peterson, a client of Braaten’s who is not related to Darwin Peterson, said a series of drilling waste releases stretching back 15 years have rendered several acres unusable of the 2,000 or so he farms. The state has not compelled the companies that caused the damage to repair it, he said. Peterson hasn’t wanted to spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would take to haul out the dirt and replace it, so the land lies fallow.
“I pay taxes on that land,” he said.
Salting the Earth
Six years ago, a four-inch saltwater pipeline ruptured just outside Linda Monson’s property line, leaking about a million gallons of salty wastewater.
As it cascaded down a hill and into Charbonneau Creek, which cuts through Monson’s pasture, the spill deposited metals and carcinogenic hydrocarbons in the soil. The toxic brew wiped out the creek’s fish, turtles and other life reaching 15 miles downstream.
After suing Zenergy Inc., the oil company that owns the line, Monson reached a settlement that restricts what she can say about the incident.
There’s little understanding of what long-term impacts hundreds of such releases could be having on western North Dakota’s land and water, said Micah Reuber.
Until last year, Reuber was the environmental contaminant specialist in North Dakota for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees wetlands and waterways.
Reuber quit after growing increasingly frustrated with the inadequate resources devoted to the position. Responding to oil field spills was supposed to be a small part of his job, but it came to consume all of his time.
“It didn’t seem like we were keeping pace with it at all,” he said. “It got to be demoralizing.”
Joanna Thamke, a groundwater specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Montana, started mapping contamination from drilling 20 years ago. She estimated it had spread through about 12 square miles of the aquifer, which is the only source of drinking water in the area. Over the years, brine had leaked through old well bores, buried waste pits and aging tanks and pipes.
In the Poplar study and others, Thamke has found that plumes of contaminated groundwater can take decades to dissipate and sometimes move to new areas.
“What we found is the plumes, after two decades, have not gone away,” she said. “They’ve spread out.”
8 June 2012
What really gets to me is the “so many jobs are being created”. It’s always the same old ‘screen to hide behind’. Surely wwe cannot compromise our land, our water, our LIFE to that an extent?