In Shadow of Oil Boom, North Dakota Farmers Fight Contamination

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North Dakota is in the midst of an oil boom. Farmers are coping with the environmental and financial costs of wastewater spills from the drilling. Photo Credit: Dermot Tatlow / LAIF / Redux

Article courtesy of Laura Gottesdiener | September 6, 2014 | Aljazeera America | Shared as educational material

ANTLER, N.D. — Last summer, in a wet, remote section of farm country in Bottineau County, landowner Mike Artz and his two neighbors discovered that a ruptured pipeline was spewing contaminated wastewater into his crop fields.

“We saw all this oil on the low area, and all this salt water spread out beyond it,” said his neighbor Larry Peterson, who works as a farmer and an oil-shale contractor. “The water ran out into the wetland.”

It was August, and all across Artz’s farm the barley crop was just reaching maturity. But near the spill, the dead stalks had undeveloped kernels, which, the farmers knew, meant that the barley had been contaminated weeks earlier.

Soon after, state testing of the wetlands showed that chloride levels were so high, they exceeded the range of the test strips. The North Dakota Department of Health estimated that between 400 to 600 barrels of wastewater, the equivalent of 16,800 to 25,200 gallons, had seeped into the ground.

Wastewater, known as “saltwater” because of its high salinity, is a by-product of oil drilling, which has been a boom-and-bust industry in North Dakota since at least the 1930s. Far saltier than ocean water, this wastewater is toxic enough to sterilize land and poison animals that mistakenly drink it. “You never see a saltwater spill produce again,” Artz said, referring to the land affected by the contamination. “Maybe this will be the first, but I doubt it.”

In this July 10, 2014 file photo, saltwater leaks into a stream from a massive saltwater spill from an underground pipeline on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation near Mandaree, North Dakota. Photo credit: Tyler Bell / AP

Artz is far from being the only farmer in his area, or even in his family, to be forced to cope with the environmental and financial costs of wastewater. His brother Pete recently testified before the state legislature’s Energy Development and Transmission Committee that he lost five cattle after they drank contaminated water from a reserve pit left from two wells drilled on his property in 2009. His other brother, Bob, had a spill that sent wastewater pouring down the road and across his land in late July.

In fact, farmers and landowners all across Bottineau County are struggling with the compounding effects of both new and decades-old water contamination. The county lies in the northern outskirts of the Bakken Formation, which has transformed over the last few years into one of the top-producing oil fields in the world, generating more than 1 million barrels a day. While the boom has brought wealth, the rapid pace of extraction has sparked fears among the state’s farmers and ranchers about the long-term costs and consequences of land and water contamination, especially because hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, produces far more wastewater than past drilling techniques. (The process, which has exploded in North Dakota since 2008, requires injecting into each well millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals at high pressure in order to break up the shale underneath.) Recent spills, such as July’s massive, million-gallon wastewater spill on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, in western North Dakota, have further stoked fears of future contamination.

In this respect, Bottineau County offers an unusual, decades-long test case, since the region has a long history of contamination and a plethora of aging wells, tanks, pipelines, disposal sites and other infrastructure left from North Dakota’s earlier oil booms in the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s. And the experiment’s not over yet. At a recent meeting, Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s Oil and Gas Division, announced that a new wave of production is headed to Bottineau in 2015.

Nothing will grow

Bob Artz, a North Dakota farmer. Photo credit: Laura Gottesdiener

A daylong tour of Bottineau County demonstrates the effects of wastewater spills over the decades of drilling in this area.

“We could show you spills for two days straight,” said farmer Daryl Peterson, as he, his brother, Larry, and his wife, Christine, rode the dusty roads that crisscross the five most contaminated oil fields in the area: the Wayne field, the Wiley field, the Renville field, the Haas field and the North Haas field.

“Some of the pumping units are from the ’30s,” said Larry Peterson as he drove past Margaret Hellebust’s land, which sits on the Wayne oil field. Fifty years ago, a wastewater spill contaminated 80 acres of her property. “It’s sad because it doesn’t produce a crop,” Hellebust said later. Over the decades, her family has tried planting barley, wheat and sunflowers in the contaminated area, she said, but nothing grows. “As a landowner, you get so disgusted that every time you hear of an oil company, you just almost want to scream.”

Across the five oil fields, rusted wells have stood dormant for decades. Abandoned well heads jut out of fields, making it difficult for farmers to sow and harvest the area. One abandoned tank in the Haas field contains a thick layer of sludge that residents fear is radioactive. Other tanks — some active, others abandoned — have begun to slouch over the years. Earlier this summer, a leaning saltwater tank on farmer Darren Jespersen’s land collapsed, spilling hundreds of gallons of salt water onto his property.

Environmental workers take samples to assess the level of contamination, and surveyors measure the size of affected area at the site of saltwater spill Thursday, July 10, 2014, near Mandaree, North Dakota. Photo Credit: Tyler Bell / AP

On Daryl’s land, also on the Wayne field, a few recent spills have left splotches of infertile land where he can still see the crystalized salt flecks on the soil surface. This year Daryl planted soybeans on areas of land where the wastewater was cleaned up and the land was remediated. But still, in some areas, nothing will grow. “There’s three feet of new dirt here, but the salt is working its way into the field through the capillaries,” he said. “The crop is dying as we watch it.”

On the Wiley oil field, which sits about three miles south of the Wayne field, wastewater contamination has caused not only crop failure, Larry said, but also the death of ash and cottonwood trees. “The cattle won’t even eat the grass here,” he said. On the Renville field, Christine Peterson pointed out where she discovered a spill in the winter of 2010 because the snow was streaked yellow. Nearby, the land around a 2011 wastewater spill at a disposal site operated by the company PetroHarvester still has a running generator pumping the contaminated water out of the field. As is the case with many incidents, the quantity of wastewater released in this spill is contested. The Oil and Gas Division’s follow-up report cites 300 barrels, but local residents say the state health department initially estimated the spill to have been closer to 50,000 barrels. Either way, it’s been an expensive cleanup; the Oil and Gas Division’s report estimated it would ultimately cost $2.5 million.

Mike Artz’s land is still showing high levels of contamination, despite an ongoing cleanup and remediation effort by Murex, the well operator responsible for the spill. But even more troubling to the Artz family and their neighbors is the perception that the process has been riddled with misreporting and a lack of regulatory enforcement by state agencies. The Oil and Gas Division’s reports say that the spillage lasted for only 24 hours and, impossibly, that it amounted to exactly zero barrels of liquid. (At a recent meeting, Helms, who worked for Texaco and Hess Corp. before becoming the head of the state’s oil regulatory agency, defended the division’s reporting, explaining that farmers shouldn’t expect “complete accuracy” in an initial spill report.) Artz and his neighbors had to file a Freedom of Information request just to get a record of the health department’s estimate that 16,800 to 25,200 gallons of wastewater had spilled.

Beyond Bottineau

Clean-up workers load dirt contaminated by an oil spill into trucks in Alexander, North Dakota, on Friday, March 21, 2014.Clean-up workers load dirt contaminated by an oil spill into trucks in Alexander, North Dakota, on Friday, March 21, 2014. Photo credit: Josh Wood / AP

According to Alison Ritter, the public information officer for the Oil and Gas Division, the extent of spills and contamination in Bottineau County won’t be repeated in today’s Bakken boom because of advances in operating practices and tightened regulations. Gone, for example, are the reserve water pits, which once left toxic liquids out in the open, and the size requirement for many dikes, which are used to contain potential spills, has been increased. “We had over 20 sections of code that were changed two years ago, and in the past session there were more than 40,” she said.

The majority of workers and residents agree that the oil-field practices have improved since past booms. Yet, state records, testimonies from oil-field workers and the Facebook page Bakken Oilfield Fail of the Day, which publishes daily photos of tank explosions, truck collisions and machine malfunctions, suggest that wastewater spills are still a significant hazard in the current boom.

Most large spills are caused by burst pipelines, but another source of contamination is tank explosions at water-disposal sites. The water-storage tanks are made of fiberglass, which is a perfect conductor for lightning during storms. This summer, at least three saltwater tanks have exploded after being struck, causing the waste to spill onto the surrounding land. “The industry says it’s cheaper to just put up another tank than to put in the technology to avoid lightning,” said Jerry Samuelson, emergency manager of McKenzie County, where the new drilling boom is occurring.

A third problem is tanker rollovers, which occur when a driver’s wheels catch the often icy edges of North Dakota’s narrow highways and flip over. “There are more wrecks and fatalities than I’ve ever seen,” said the owner of a small trucking company in Williston who previously worked as a driver for the oil industry in Alaska and Texas and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “In the winter there are two or three every day.”

But not all of the tanker spills are accidental. Jerry Samuelson explained that some truck drivers illegally dump wastewater alongside the highway to avoid having to haul it all the way to the disposal sites. A huge fine levied against a driver in the city of Minot has helped curtailed the practice, he said. But it hasn’t stopped completely; as Samuelson spoke, his fellow emergency manager Karolin Rockvoy was out investigating a report of an illegal dump. “You can tell someone’s doing some illegal dumping,” she said when she returned a few hours later with photographs. “The thing is to catch them in the act, because otherwise they keep doing it.”

Spills don’t only affect the future fertility of the land; they can also destroy a farmer’s ability to sell their property or get financing.If the land is contaminated, I don’t want the hassle or the risk,” said Claude Sem, the president of Farm Credit Services of North Dakota, one of the state’s largest agricultural lenders.

Sem still lends on land with pipelines and oil wells. But he avoids high-risk sites, such as land with documented spills, leaking pipes or tanks, and even some land adjacent to a spill site, since contaminated water migrates underground. His fear, he explained, is that the bank could ultimately be held liable for financing the astronomically expensive cleanups if an oil company declares bankruptcy or disappears. (Lynn Helms admits that, over the years, several companies have done just that, although Sem has not yet been left with a cleanup bill.) “There are times we’ve said we won’t lend,” Sem said.

According to the Oil and Gas Division, there were nearly 1,700 industry-reported spills in the state in 2013, an average of more than four per day. Local farmers and current oil-field workers, however, contend that the real number is far higher. State law requires oil companies to report every spill at a well pad that exceeds one barrel and every spill, regardless of quantity, that is not on a pad, said Helms. But industry practice, said one well operator working in the Bakken, is another story. He explained that the industry threshold is less about quantity and more about containment; if the company can clean up the problem by itself, then it will go unreported. “If they reported every spill, this whole freaking industry would shut down,” said the well operator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Just me working here for the last year with this company, I’ve probably seen over, I don’t know, four or five hundred barrels [spilled]. Maybe more.”

Most large spills are caused by burst pipelines, but another source of contamination is tank explosions at water-disposal sites. The water-storage tanks are made of fiberglass, which is a perfect conductor for lightning during storms. This summer, at least three saltwater tanks have exploded after being struck, causing the waste to spill onto the surrounding land. “The industry says it’s cheaper to just put up another tank than to put in the technology to avoid lightning,” said Jerry Samuelson, emergency manager of McKenzie County, where the new drilling boom is occurring.

A third problem is tanker rollovers, which occur when a driver’s wheels catch the often icy edges of North Dakota’s narrow highways and flip over. “There are more wrecks and fatalities than I’ve ever seen,” said the owner of a small trucking company in Williston who previously worked as a driver for the oil industry in Alaska and Texas and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “In the winter there are two or three every day.”

But not all of the tanker spills are accidental. Jerry Samuelson explained that some truck drivers illegally dump wastewater alongside the highway to avoid having to haul it all the way to the disposal sites. A huge fine levied against a driver in the city of Minot has helped curtailed the practice, he said. But it hasn’t stopped completely; as Samuelson spoke, his fellow emergency manager Karolin Rockvoy was out investigating a report of an illegal dump. “You can tell someone’s doing some illegal dumping,” she said when she returned a few hours later with photographs. “The thing is to catch them in the act, because otherwise they keep doing it.”

Spills don’t only affect the future fertility of the land; they can also destroy a farmer’s ability to sell their property or get financing. “If the land is contaminated, I don’t want the hassle or the risk,” said Claude Sem, the president of Farm Credit Services of North Dakota, one of the state’s largest agricultural lenders.

Sem still lends on land with pipelines and oil wells. But he avoids high-risk sites, such as land with documented spills, leaking pipes or tanks, and even some land adjacent to a spill site, since contaminated water migrates underground. His fear, he explained, is that the bank could ultimately be held liable for financing the astronomically expensive cleanups if an oil company declares bankruptcy or disappears. (Lynn Helms admits that, over the years, several companies have done just that, although Sem has not yet been left with a cleanup bill.) “There are times we’ve said we won’t lend,” Sem said.

According to the Oil and Gas Division, there were nearly 1,700 industry-reported spills in the state in 2013, an average of more than four per day. Local farmers and current oil-field workers, however, contend that the real number is far higher. State law requires oil companies to report every spill at a well pad that exceeds one barrel and every spill, regardless of quantity, that is not on a pad, said Helms. But industry practice, said one well operator working in the Bakken, is another story. He explained that the industry threshold is less about quantity and more about containment; if the company can clean up the problem by itself, then it will go unreported. “If they reported every spill, this whole freaking industry would shut down,” said the well operator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Just me working here for the last year with this company, I’ve probably seen over, I don’t know, four or five hundred barrels [spilled]. Maybe more.”

Most large spills are caused by burst pipelines, but another source of contamination is tank explosions at water-disposal sites. The water-storage tanks are made of fiberglass, which is a perfect conductor for lightning during storms. This summer, at least three saltwater tanks have exploded after being struck, causing the waste to spill onto the surrounding land. “The industry says it’s cheaper to just put up another tank than to put in the technology to avoid lightning,” said Jerry Samuelson, emergency manager of McKenzie County, where the new drilling boom is occurring.

A third problem is tanker rollovers, which occur when a driver’s wheels catch the often icy edges of North Dakota’s narrow highways and flip over. “There are more wrecks and fatalities than I’ve ever seen,” said the owner of a small trucking company in Williston who previously worked as a driver for the oil industry in Alaska and Texas and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “In the winter there are two or three every day.”

But not all of the tanker spills are accidental. Jerry Samuelson explained that some truck drivers illegally dump wastewater alongside the highway to avoid having to haul it all the way to the disposal sites. A huge fine levied against a driver in the city of Minot has helped curtailed the practice, he said. But it hasn’t stopped completely; as Samuelson spoke, his fellow emergency manager Karolin Rockvoy was out investigating a report of an illegal dump. “You can tell someone’s doing some illegal dumping,” she said when she returned a few hours later with photographs. “The thing is to catch them in the act, because otherwise they keep doing it.”

Spills don’t only affect the future fertility of the land; they can also destroy a farmer’s ability to sell their property or get financing. “If the land is contaminated, I don’t want the hassle or the risk,” said Claude Sem, the president of Farm Credit Services of North Dakota, one of the state’s largest agricultural lenders.

Sem still lends on land with pipelines and oil wells. But he avoids high-risk sites, such as land with documented spills, leaking pipes or tanks, and even some land adjacent to a spill site, since contaminated water migrates underground. His fear, he explained, is that the bank could ultimately be held liable for financing the astronomically expensive cleanups if an oil company declares bankruptcy or disappears. (Lynn Helms admits that, over the years, several companies have done just that, although Sem has not yet been left with a cleanup bill.) “There are times we’ve said we won’t lend,” Sem said.

‘Moral obligation’

Roberto Arnoldo works at getting his rig towed back onto the road after loosing control of his truck on his first snow driving experience in 11 years just outside of Williston, North Dakota, Oct 29, 2013. Photo credit: Ken Cedeno / Corbis

Back in Bottineau, Mike Artz is still waiting for his land to be fully remediated — and for the state’s reports to be updated. He and some neighbors, including Daryl Peterson, wrote a letter to the Oil and Gas Division, asking for clarifications on the cause, quantity and duration of the spill. Helms’ response echoed the findings of the initial report, including the assertion that the spillage lasted only 24 hours. The farmers then wrote an appeal to the North Dakota Industrial Commission; they are now awaiting a response. “They said they caught it the next day. That’s what bothers me more than anything,” said Artz. “Well, the spill bothers me, too.”

As for Daryl and Larry Peterson, their efforts to spur full cleanups and increased enforcement have made them none too popular, even though Daryl says that he’s just pushing for accountability, not the end of drilling entirely. In 2011, the well operating company Sage Brush, which owned most of the wells on the Renville field, sued Larry and Daryl for allegedly trespassing on the well pads. District Judge Michael Sturdevant later dismissed the lawsuit, calling it an attempt by the company “solely to vex, annoy, harass, and intimidate” the Petersons.

In fact, Sturdevant issued an unexpected statement of support for the Petersons’ efforts. “The citizens — the Petersons, as anyone else, has the right to voice their concerns to the regulatory authorities,” he wrote in his ruling. “They may even have a moral obligation to bring what they believe to be pollution problems, spills, and what have you … to the attention of the authorities.”

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