Unwanted water: Saltwater spills can cause lasting damage, are difficult to clean up
More than 55,000 barrels of saltwater — about 2.3 million gallons — produced by the oil and gas industry have been spilled on North Dakota land in the past 22 months, posing an environmental risk to soil, plants and freshwater resources in dozens of cases, a Forum News Service review of incident reports found.
State regulators highlight that most of the saltwater was contained and cleaned up on well sites.
Reports show 81 percent of the 1,085 releases of saltwater — some of it mixed with oil, diesel fuel or other liquids — were contained on site or within the leaking pipeline’s right-of-way.
And nearly 70 percent of the saltwater was reported as recovered, usually by vacuuming up the briny liquid or hauling the contaminated soil to the landfill, or both, according to incident reports filed with the state Department of Health from Jan. 1, 2012, to Oct. 29 of this year.
Still, at least 15 percent of the spills — more than 13,000 barrels — weren’t contained, and the issue is considered a high enough priority that the department is trying to assemble a task force of university experts, industry representatives, state regulators and others to look this winter at new ways of dealing with saltwater spills, said Dennis Fewless, director of the department’s Division of Water Quality.
“Are there new, better approaches to remediating this saltwater? Because that’s actually harder to clean up than the oil,” he said.
The amount of saltwater spilled in the state since 2012 would fill nearly four Olympic-size swimming pools. By comparison, during roughly the same time frame, 751 oil spills were reported in North Dakota, spilling a total of about 4,528 barrels of oil, the Associated Press reported last month. Those figures don’t include a 20,600-barrel oil spill discovered near Tioga in September.
Western North Dakota landowners have become more organized and vocal in their concerns about saltwater spills. Last month, landowners and a lawyer led a tour of so-called “salted lands” in Bottineau County, where pockets of farmland sterilized by spills and pipeline leaks dot the landscape.
“Saltwater is far more devastating to our environment than oil is,” said Galen Peterson, who farms near Maxbass in Bottineau County and is secretary of the Northwest Landowners Association.
Public notice in works
Incident reports show about four-fifths of the saltwater spills since 2012 were 50 barrels or fewer, and almost half involved 5 barrels or fewer. A barrel is 42 gallons.
“We’re feeling the companies are very responsible right now in reporting all those small spills,” Fewless said.
Larger spills are less common but by no means rare: Reports show 143 spills involved 100 barrels or more of brine, and 21 of those involved 500 barrels or more.
Lynn Helms, director of the state Department of Mineral Resources, said 14 saltwater spills involving 500 barrels or more have gotten off site since 2006.
In the past four weeks alone, the Health Department issued news releases about four sizable spills, three of which totaled 1,690 barrels and a saltwater tank explosion at a disposal well site near Alexander on Nov. 7 that spilled about 2,700 barrels of saltwater and oil.
State officials haven’t routinely publicized such spills in the past. However, after taking criticism for a 20,600-barrel oil spill that was discovered Sept. 29 near Tioga but not publicly disclosed until Oct. 10 — and only after a news reporter asked about it — the Health Department announced late last month it will launch a website to publish information on all spills.
Cleanup ‘very, very tough’
Extracting crude oil and natural gas from rock formations deep underground also brings saltwater — known in the industry as brine or “produced water” — to the surface.
The state’s oil and gas industry produced about 293 million barrels of brine last year, including hydraulic fracturing fluid that might come up with it, compared to 243 million barrels of oil. About 255 million barrels of brine have been produced so far this year.
But the ratio of water to oil will increase as Bakken development matures, an Oil and Gas Division spokeswoman said.
The brine ranges in salinity from 100 to 400,000 milligrams per liter, or about 11 times saltier than seawater, according to the Produced Water Society, a collection of engineers and industry professionals.
Brine often contains dissolved gases such as hydrogen sulfide and flammable chemical compounds such as benzene, as well as trace metals and silt.
Brine can be toxic to plants, but the biggest problem is that it competes with plants for water in the soil, creating “sort of a drought situation for plants,” said Larry Cihacek, an associate professor of soil science at North Dakota State University in Fargo.
Sodium salts commonly found in oilfield brine also tend to disperse the clay in soil, creating a barrier that water can’t flow through, Cihacek said.
“It just kind of messes up its normal function, so to speak,” he said.
Other than replacing the soil, the main method of remediation is to flush the soil with freshwater to leach out the sodium, Cihacek said.
“It’s very, very tough because we don’t have enough freshwater to do the job,” he said.
The modern method for disposing saltwater is through disposal wells deep underground after being temporarily stored in tanks.
North Dakota currently has 515 saltwater disposal wells.
The state had a total of 2,127 saltwater pipelines as of last week, Helms said, but North Dakota has no inspection program for saltwater pipelines. Past incidents have underscored the consequences of pipeline leaks — none more devastating than the 2006 pipeline spill of about 1 million gallons of saltwater into Charbonneau Creek, which flows into the Yellowstone River in northwestern North Dakota.
The saltwater traveled through a stock pond and beaver dam and entered the creek, killing marine and plant life.
Fewless said the creek is as clean now as it was before the spill, and plant life has returned. But pipeline owner Zenergy Inc. continues to remove contaminated groundwater, with nearly 1.5 million barrels of saltwater and groundwater recovered as of Wednesday, he said.
The Health Department is responsible for overseeing cleanup and enforcing penalties for off-site spills.
Since 2006, it has levied penalties in three instances, including $171,750 against Zenergy for the Charbonneau Creek spill. The company ultimately agreed to pay a $70,000 penalty and an additional $53,308 for Health Department costs related to the spill.
Continental Resources Inc. paid a $62,500 penalty and donated two spill-response trailers to Williams County for three alleged spill violations in 2011-2012. Wiley Bice Trucking LLC of Killdeer paid a $14,000 penalty for failing to report a brine spill in Dunn County in April 2010 and transporting special waste without a permit.
The Health Department is still mulling action against Petro Harvester Oil & Gas LLC for a pipeline spill discovered in July 2011 in western Bottineau County that contaminated 10 ponds and total of 23.8 acres. Less than two months after the spill was discovered, the company had removed 52,861 barrels of water from the ponds, suggesting the spill “far exceeded” the initial estimate of 300 barrels, a notice of violation said.
Incident reports often list pipeline spills as recovered and contained because they’re within the pipeline’s right of way. But Peterson, the Bottineau County landowner, said that’s not an accurate description.
“It’s contaminated the soil all around the area,” he said. “You put water in any type of soil, it moves quite a bit. You can never recover all of it.”
Derrick Braaten, a Bismarck attorney who has represented landowners in lawsuits and negotiations over saltwater spills, said he and many landowners have been frustrated by reports that suggest all of the spilled brine was recovered. About 45 percent of the incident reports listed the amount recovered as equal to the amount spilled, with an average spill size of about 44 barrels.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever poured water on the ground, but I’d like to know exactly how they recover exactly 10 barrels that they spilled,” he said.
At least 130 incident reports listed soil among the potential environmental impacts. In most cases it was soil contaminated on the well site, but a few had impacts outside the well pad, such as “pasture soil,” “topsoil in cultivated field” and “crop and soil” — all in spills reported as complete recoveries.
Braaten said landowners aren’t convinced companies always haul out contaminated soil or gravel. He said one landowner told him he caught a company pouring gravel over a saltwater spill to cover it up.
“Sometimes, if it’s on site, they just don’t clean it up and they just report that they did,” he said.
Bills take aim at spills, pipelines
The Charbonneau Creek spill prompted state regulators to identify saltwater pipelines in environmentally sensitive areas and require them to have continuous monitoring through meters and pressure gauges, Helms said.
About 25 percent, are monitored, Helms said.
The Northwest Landowners Association backed a bill during this year’s legislative session that would have required flow meters and pressure cutoff switches on all gas and liquid transmission lines used in oil and gas development, including saltwater pipelines. Lawmakers quashed the bill with an 86-4 vote, with opponents claiming the requirements were too cumbersome and costly. Helms said he testified against the bill because he’s not aware of any meters or switches sensitive or accurate enough to detect the bulk of spills caused by small leaks.
Peterson said the technology is available and the state just needs to utilize it. The landowner’s association will likely try to push a similar bill in 2015, he said.
“After it’s getting more publicity, I think they’re going to be forced to do something,” he said, adding the association isn’t opposed to oil development. “We just feel that the landowner should not be asked or obligated to have an unnecessary loss of land because of it with these spills,” he said.
‘Getting much better’
Legislation approved last spring, House Bill 1333, will expand the state’s role in making sure that saltwater transfer lines — which haven’t been regulated in the past — are properly mapped, installed and abandoned, Helms said.
The law requires the Industrial Commission to create a database of all underground gathering pipelines in service after Aug. 1, 2011, and to make that information available to the property’s owner or tenant upon request. The rules won’t take effect until April 1.
In the meantime, the Department of Mineral Resources has hired three engineering technicians — one for each of the three geographic districts around Dickinson, Minot and Williston — whose focus will include saltwater pipelines, Helms said. He also noted that the number of oil wells is increasing more rapidly than the number of spills.
“Certainly more can and should be done, and I think we’re taking all the right steps,” he said. “We’re moving it in the right direction, probably at about the right speed.”