A saltwater disposal well east of Williston, N.D.
PHOTO: OVERLAND AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY
State regulators skirt EPA guidance on saltwater disposal
An investigation by The Dickinson Press of 449 well files and more than 2,090 mechanical test files revealed officials from the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources’ Division of Oil and Gas conditionally approved disposal wells, even after they didn’t meet accepted pressure testing standards.
While no groundwater contamination has been reported, the agency allowed wells with structural problems to operate despite U.S. EPA guidelines stipulating wells with significant pressure loss should be repaired within 270 days and wells with less than two viable layers of casings should be shut down within that time frame.
Enforcing the regulations and guidelines regarding the saltwater disposal wells rests first with the Division of Oil and Gas, not EPA. Conditional approval doesn’t equate to test failures.
“If we had any inkling that there would be contamination of [U.S. drinking water], the well would be shut in,” said Mark Bohrer, the Division of Oil and Gas’ underground injection control manager. “That is the last thing I want to do is contaminate somebody’s freshwater well.”
A review of state and federal documents along with multiple interviews with The Dickinson Press from geologists, engineers, environmental policy experts and lawyers familiar with the Clean Water Act suggested the Division of Oil and Gas loosely interpreted EPA’s guidance meant to protect groundwater from saltwater contamination.
Consequences from contaminating aquifers last for decades with no economically feasible method to clean problems up.
“It doesn’t just flush out and disappear,” said Joanna Thamke, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who has studied saltwater contamination of aquifers in Montana and North Dakota. Rural landowners could suffer the most from contamination because many of these aquifers supply their drinking water.
Additionally, the impact to health leaves many energy and public health experts concerned and drives home the importance of these tests.
“There is a reason well bore integrity is tested,” said Seth Shonkoff, the executive director of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy, a think tank focused on bringing scientific transparency to energy and policy issues.
Environmental lawyers reviewing the documents questioned the agency’s actions and said it could open itself up to citizen lawsuits or a review by EPA if enough people petition the federal agency (Andrew Brown,Dickinson Press, Feb. 14). — KS