Decades later, holes drilled in search for oil now flooding land

WILLISTON - A ditch near Williston is flooded with water, but it's not the result of unseasonably warm weather. It's a remnant of 1970s oil exploration, a hole drilled for seismic exploration that was never properly repaired. Today, water from un...

WILLISTON – A ditch near Williston is flooded with water, but it’s not the result of unseasonably warm weather.

It’s a remnant of 1970s oil exploration, a hole drilled for seismic exploration that was never properly repaired.

Today, water from underground aquifers is flowing out of that hole at a rate of about 5 gallons per minute, estimates Cody VanderBusch, reclamation specialist for the state Department of Mineral Resources.

It’s one of many “shot holes” near Williston that have left wet spots in farmers’ fields for more than a decade.

But now, with state dollars set aside by legislators last year to repair damage from legacy oil exploration, crews are working to fill those holes and restore the land. The state has been aware of the damage for 11 years, but until now didn’t have any way of helping the landowners, VanderBusch said.


“In most cases, we don’t even know who the responsible party is. They were never bonded or permitted back then,” VanderBusch said. “We don’t have anything to go back on … and the companies probably don’t exist anymore.”

The borings or shot holes, about 4 or 5 inches in diameter, were drilled about 150 feet deep. Then companies would shoot explosive charges down the holes and measure the shock waves to determine where oil might be pooled and the depth of the formation, VanderBusch said.

“At the time that they were drilled, they were never plugged,” he said.

Landowner Rolf Gjorven said oil companies did a lot of seismic exploration on his land and his brother’s farmland near Epping in the 1970s, drilling shot holes in straight lines in many different directions.

Around the mid-1990s, Gjorven started noticing wet spots in areas of their farmland. One field had cattails growing surrounded by planted crops. They scraped away the topsoil and discovered the shot holes were the source of the water.

The water comes from underground aquifers that are under pressure.

“With all the wet years we’ve been having, that water is getting pushed out of the holes and then flooding the surface,” VanderBusch said. “Ultimately it’s taken agricultural land out of production.”

Not all of the shot holes are flowing as intensely as one discovered in a ditch near Williston, but many are causing problems for landowners.


“Many of these, they’ve got a large area where this water is seeping out and making it unusable for vegetation and for cultivation,” said Steve Maliszeski, staff geologist for Terracon, a geotechnical engineering firm that is repairing the holes.

For Gjorven, one of his biggest concerns was having a wheel from a piece of machinery drop into an unseen wet spot. He also worried about the possibility of farm chemicals contaminating ground water.

Josh Smith, who now farms the land owned by Gjorven, said he discovered another shot hole had opened up last fall.

“It just grows exponentially every year,” Smith said of the impact from the holes.

Gjorven contacted state leaders over the years, but was told the state didn’t have any resources to help landowners fix the damage.

In 2015, legislators voted to expand the Department of Mineral Resources fund for plugging abandoned oil and gas wells to include sites that were abandoned before 1983. An estimated $131,000 from the fund – which comes from oil tax revenue – will be used to fill nine shot holes identified in the Williston area.

A crew from Terracon drills to the bottom of the shot hole and then fills the hole with bentonite clay, which is a water-tight clay, Maliszeski said. Crews have successfully filled some of the holes, but wet conditions were making accessing others difficult last week.

After this project, there’s not much money left out of the $1.5 million designated this biennium for repairing legacy oil damage, and there are more projects on the list.


The fund also cleaned up an abandoned oil pit south of Medora that was eroding into the Little Missouri River and threatening to contaminate drinking water. That project and another in Bottineau County to reclaim an abandoned pipeline cost a combined $767,076, the Department of Mineral Resources said.

Another $309,508 went to North Dakota State University for a brine remediation study. That leaves about $292,000 left in the fund after the shot hole work, which is not enough to cover the next projects on the list, pits that need to be cleaned up in Billings and McKenzie counties.

Spokeswoman Alison Ritter said the dollars will either remain in the fund or could be used to pay for another project if one comes to light that could be repaired within the budget.

Landowners who have damage from legacy oil exploration are encouraged to report it to the Department of Mineral Resources at (701) 328-8020 to be considered for future rounds of funding.

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