(Editor’s Note: This is the second of two part looking at issues surrounding state-required reporting of oil spills.)
By John D. Taylor
Alison Ritter, spokesperson for the state Department of Mineral Resource, Oil & Gas Division (OGD) said the agency has a low threshold for reporting spills — if a single barrel of oil spills, the responsible oil company must report this, she said.
“Companies are diligent about getting this done,” Ritter said. “They are required by law to report accurately. If 50 barrels spilled, 50 barrels spilled.”
State environmental incident reports from Divide County show seven spill events in August, with 78 barrels of brine, 36.5 barrels of oil, and 70 barrels of “drilling mud,” a diesel fuel and asphalt oil borehole lubricant. Of this, 76.5 barrels of brine, 33 barrels of oil and 67 barrels of mud were reportedly recovered during clean-up.
In Burke County, in four incidents, 271 barrels of brine and two barrels of oil were spilled during August. Reclaimed were 131 barrels of brine and one barrel of oil.
Williams County, by far the larger oil producer of the three counties, showed nine incidents that put 420 barrels of brine, 237 barrels of oil and 20 barrels of drilling mud into the environment. Reclaimed were 420 barrels of brine, 231 of oil and 20 barrels of mud.
To keep oil companies honest, Ritter said, OGD has 32 field inspectors working full time in its Minot, Williston and Dickinson offices. These inspectors visit oil rigs twice weekly; oil and saltwater injection wells once a month; and producing wells once per quarter.
The Department of Health (DOH) has far fewer field people. Scott Radig, director of the Waste Management Division of DOH said there are just six full-time people, and “several” part timers on its spill and emergency response teams. Just two people are in the field daily; one north of Lake Sakakawea, one south of the lake.
Both Ritter and Radig said the state takes oil spills seriously.
“We do as good a job as we can to respond to spills,” Radig said. “There’s also concern over the cumulative effect of the spills, but many factors are involved.”
Much depends on how the spills are cleaned up: Petroleum spills will degrade over time, he said, but saltwater malingers, Radig said.
Ritter said lumping spills represented in the environmental reports together isn’t a good idea.
“No spill is a good spill,” she said, “but each is different.”
If a spill is contained at the well site by the dikes built to contain it, the impact is less than if it gets into waterways, Ritter said.
“We hold companies accountable, ensure the company cleans up the site properly,” she said.
However, Sean Arithson and Scott Skokos of the Dakota Resource Council (DRC), a non-profit, grassroots activist group of largely farmers and ranchers working to protect North Dakota’s resources, rural communities and agricultural economy, aren’t so sure the state is doing a good job.
Are the reports trustworthy? Is the reporting accurate?
Arithson has doubts.
“Trust? I don’t know what to believe,” he said. “This is a case of the fox guarding the hen house. When out-of-state oil companies have more say about what happens to our land than North Dakotans do, something is wrong.”
“The regulators say we don’t have a problem,” Arithson continued, “then they say we do. Everything is so reactive. It’s hard to check this against what is reported when the oil comspanies and the regulators are working so closely together.”
Arithson said DRC has anecdotal reports from oil workers concerned about keeping their jobs, who say the companies only report those spills that are “noticeable.”
Then there are the Petersons — brothers Daryl and Larry, Bottineau County farmers who live near Antler. They live with spills from five previously productive oil fields on their farms, one dating back to the 1930s. Their land is dotted with abandoned well heads, rusting oil tanks and two saltwater spill sites. One is an 80-acre patch that hasn’t grown anything for the last 50 years, the other is a supposedly “remediated” site, with 3 feet of fresh top soil, that also grows nothing. The Petersons believe salt is leaching into this field, also killing their trees.
But the incident that really frosts Daryl Peterson’s chaps took place in 2011, when a Petro Harvester pipeline from the Cramer 1 SWD (saltwater disposal unit) sprung a leak.
According to the state’s official report, 300 barrels of saltwater was released.
Peterson claims this figure is hooey, that the state’s regulators will do “anything” to minimize and protect the oil industry. Experts reviewing this spill conclude 50,000 barrels of brine – more than 2 million gallon milk jugs – is “a conservative estimate” of what the pipeline spewed. Peterson claims the 3-mile-long pipeline, installed during the winter of 2010, leaked for seven months.
OGD’s Director Lynn Helms told him the leak was pinhole-sized, something monitoring couldn’t have detected. Peterson says the leak came from a 1-inch, diamond-shaped hole. He’s also unhappy about the state’s $1 million “inadequate” cleanup.
“As a landowner, you get so disgusted that every time you hear of an oil company, you just want to scream,” said Christine Peterson, Larry’s wife.
Another trio of Antler farmers – Mike, Pete and Bob Artz – also have oil trouble. Last August, there was a spill on Mike Artz’s land. Murex, the well operator, took responsibility for the spill and cleaned things up, yet the Artzes believe the reporting process is seriously flawed.
OGD’s initial report claimed the Artz spill lasted 24 hours, but zero barrels spilled. However, a Freedom of Information request from Mike Artz to the state health department disclosed that some 500 barrels of saltwater — 21,000 gallon milk jugs — spilled. The Artzes claim the leaking SWD pipeline was not monitored for months and minimally maintained for years.
The Artzes further assert that no penalties were issued for the “negligent spill,” and that despite several hundred loads of contaminated soil being hauled out, much contamination remains: Brine-collecting wells were not pumped out and monitoring wells have not been tested.
Pete Artz lost five calves in pits from two unproductive 2009 oil wells drilled on his property. And he worries about the aquifer his 500 head of cattle use. It’s near the spill site, and adjacent wetland tests show chloride (salt) levels “off the charts.” The Artzes face huge financial losses, and believe unless there are “real consequences” for oil producers, the “reckless, negligent behavior” they’ve experienced will make agriculture impossible for their grandchildren.
DRC’s Scott Skokos said there were no current Bakken studies on the cumulative effects of many spills, but a study by State Geologist Edward C. Murphy, presented to the state legislature’s energy committee in April, revealed that during the 1980s oil boom, saltwater evaporating pits – open, unlined pits that allowed water from oil field brine to evaporate – allowed salt, drilling fluid and other chemicals to leach some 400 feet into soil surrounding the pits. Meanwhile, the state assumes that clay under the soil and evaporation prevents this from reaching groundwater.
Arithson believes county government is where the regulatory power for oil ought to be held. County managers are on site, they care about what happens in their community. They should be given more control, he said, but the state won’t allow this.
“We’ve got a free-for-all,” Arithson said. “We don’t try to fix things until after there is a big problem. The future of North Dakota may be green from oil money, but our land is turning brown. Do we want that? North Dakota has to take back its government if we want more safeguards and keep on fighting.”