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Soaking up the Eco-Sponge

Mark Mathis thinks his company has a system that could revolutionize how oil field wastes are dealt with in the Bakken and potentially render special waste landfills obsolete.

One of the main arguments for such landfills, like one that could be placed about four miles north of Fairfield, is the fact that one large dump site in an area is better than a much larger number of on-site reserve pits, which are common in the Bakken and basically bury oil field waste in the ground at the well site.

Mathis, president and CEO of a Colorado-based company called Confluence Energy, said there is a much better way to dispose of wastes such as drill cuttings, contaminated soil and potentially hazardous leftovers.

"When we see talk about landfills, our ears perk up," Mathis said this week from his Kremmling, Colo., office. "We think there's a much better, more efficient and cheaper way to handle these industrial wastes. Nobody wants a landfill in their backyard and we don't think anyone should have to have one."

Mathis' system revolves around bioremediation, the use of micro-organism metabolism to remove pollutants in an environmentally-friendly way. Recognized by the U.S. Geological Survey, bioremediation has been around for years, but only recently has Mathis began to implement the process with Confluence's new product called Eco-Sponge.

Mathis applied for a patent for Eco-Sponge a year ago and received word of its approval earlier this month, he said. Although he said it's very early in the process, Mathis said his company is doing business with a handful outfits in the Bakken.

Zach Wyatts, a spokesman for WPX Energy, and Jack Ekstrom, a spokesman for Whiting Petroleum Corp., both said their companies are using the Eco-Sponge system to some degree in their North Dakota operations.

"We use the Eco-Sponge product and we think it helps," Wyatts said. "It's something that goes along with our values as a company. We continue to evaluate all our vendors, but we are using the product in North Dakota."

In a nutshell, this is how Eco-Sponge works: Confluence mixes a fiber product derived from beetle-killed trees with drill cuttings (basically, leftover oil well sludge) and associated drilling mud. Confluence tailors its product to the chemical makeup of each individual site before adding microbes and additives to promote the degradation of potential pollutants.

The goal is to leave the new mixture at the site without drilling an on-site pit or hauling wastes to a landfill while also allowing operators to use some of the leftover fluid from drill cuttings.

Theoretically, the process would kill three birds -- less truck traffic, cleaner environment and less cost for operators -- with one stone. Mathis, however, admits the Confluence system isn't perfect.

"We can get most of the hydrocarbons out of those cuttings, but there really is no way right now to remove everything," Mathis said. "All of the chlorides are not going to be treatable, but we feel strongly that we can effectively treat about 80 percent of the cuttings. The hydrocarbons -- that's the scary stuff and taking away 80 percent of them is a big piece of the pie."

Mathis said his company's products have been used in the state for about a year and that Eco-Sponge is being used on 15 Bakken rig sites, eight in Wyoming and 14 or 15 in Colorado.

"We think we've changed the world," Mathis said. "This is something that could change the horizon for oil and gas exploration. Those companies get a bad rap and that's not always fair, but we think this technology will help allow the energy companies, the environmentalists and those living in areas where exploration and production are occurring to all win."

North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources Public Information Specialist Alison Ritter said she did not find any record of Confluence having an approved treating plant permit with the DMR. Secretary of State Al Jaeger said in an email Thursday that Confluence has been registered to do business as a foreign limited liability company in North Dakota since September while the ND Department of Health is apparently not familiar with Confluence or Eco-Sponge.

"They have not approached us for approval to use this product as an alternative to methods of waste disposal that are currently in state waste management rules," said Scott Radig of the DH. "If they requested approval, they would have to provide data to show that the intended use would be equally as protective of human health and the environment as the currently approved methods."

Final DH approval of the Billings County landfill project is pending. The landfill would be the fifth of its kind in North Dakota.

"From the cradle to the grave, our operation costs $35,000 and that's for everything," Mathis said. "To put that in perspective, companies can spend up to $40,000 just digging one of the on-site pits. If our system doesn't work like it's supposed to, I won't even expect payment. That's a money back guarantee and that's how confident I am."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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