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North Dakota Turns Blind Eye to Dumping of Fracking Waste in Waterways and Farmland

Releases of drilling and fracking waste, which is often laced with carcinogenic chemicals, have wiped out aquatic life in streams and wetlands.

By Nicholas Kusnetz, ProPublica

Jun 8, 2012
(Page 2 of 4 )
Oil exploration in North Dakota

Keller describes the changes to his hometown in a voice just short of a yell, as if he's competing with nearby engine noise. Local grocery stores can barely keep shelves stocked and the town movie theater is so crowded it seats people in the aisle, he said. The cost of housing has skyrocketed, with some apartments fetching rents similar to those in New York City.

"With the way it is now," Keller said, "you're getting to the crazy point."

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.

In December, a stack of reports a quarter-inch thick piled up on Kris Roberts' desk. He received 34 new cases in the first week of that month alone.

"Is it a big issue?" he said. "Yes, it is."

The Health Department has added three staffers to handle the influx and the Department of Mineral Resources is increasing its workforce by 30 percent, but Roberts acknowledges they can't investigate every report.

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.

Of the 1,073 releases reported last year, about 60 percent involved oil and one-third spread brine. In about two-thirds of the cases, material was not contained to the accident site and leaked into the ground or waterways.

But the official data gives only a partial picture, Roberts said, missing an unknown number of unreported incidents.

"One, five, 10, 100? If it didn't get reported, how do you count them?" he said.

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 state also has no real estimate for how much fluid spills out accidentally from tanks, pipes, trucks and other equipment. Companies are supposed to report spill volumes, but officials acknowledge the numbers are often inexact or flat-out wrong. In 40 cases last year, the company responsible didn't know how much had spilled so it simply listed the volume of fluid as zero.

In one case last July, workers for Petro Harvester, a small, Texas-based oil company, noticed a swath of dead vegetation in a field near one of the company's saltwater disposal lines. The company reported the spill the next day, estimating that 12,600 gallons of brine had leaked.

When state and county officials came to assess the damage, however, they found evidence of a much larger accident. The leak, which had gone undetected for days or weeks, had sterilized about 24 acres of land. Officials later estimated the spill to be at least 2 million gallons of brine, Roberts said, which would make it the largest ever in the state.

Yet state records still put the volume at 12,600 gallons and Roberts sees no reason to change it.

"It's almost like rubbing salt in a raw wound," Roberts said, criticizing efforts to tabulate a number as "bean counting." Changing a report would not change reality, nor would it help anyone, he added. "If we try to go back and revisit the past over and over and over again, what's it going to do? Nothing good."

In a written statement, Petro Harvester said tests showed the spill had not contaminated groundwater and that it would continue monitoring the site for signs of damage. State records show the company hired a contractor to cover the land with 40 truckloads of a chemical that leaches salt from the soil.

Nearly a year later, however, even weeds won't grow in the area, said Darwin Peterson, who farms the land. While Petro Harvester has promised to compensate him for lost crops, Peterson said he hasn't heard from the company in months and he doesn't expect the land to be usable for years. "It's pretty devastating," he said.

Little Enforcement

The Department of Mineral Resources and the Health Department have the authority to sanction companies that spill or dump fluids, but they rarely do.

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