Source: http://www.inforum.com, April 28, 2016
By: Forum News Service
Wastewater spills from North Dakota oil production have caused widespread water and soil contamination, researchers from Duke University say in a new study.
“The magnitude of spills that we see in North Dakota I haven’t seen elsewhere,” said Avner Vengosh, a Duke University professor who has been studying the effects of hydraulic fracturing since 2010 in several oil-producing states.
Researchers found that streams polluted by produced water, also known as saltwater or brine, contained levels of contaminants that often exceeded federal guidelines for safe drinking water or aquatic health.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, also found that soil at spill sites was contaminated with radium, a naturally occurring radioactive element.
A North Dakota Department of Health official who reviewed the study Wednesday said the agency has long been concerned about the impacts of brine spills, which is why it has staff working in the field following up on spills.
“There is some good information in there. We’re going to be taking a look at it. We can always learn more,” said David Glatt, chief of the Environmental Health Section. “There was a lot of stuff that wasn’t a surprise to us and we’ve been addressing for quite some time.”
However, Glatt pointed out that the study focused on samples from a small number of spills while he said a vast majority of spills are cleaned up.
The research team, which included students Nancy Lauer and Jennifer Harkness, spent about a week in North Dakota in July 2015 collecting water and soil samples. A majority of the contamination researchers analyzed came from pipeline leaks or other infrastructure failures.
They took samples near the Blacktail Creek spill north of Williston, which was a nearly 3 million gallon spill discovered in January 2015, and at Bear Den Bay of Lake Sakakawea, the site of a July 2014 pipeline leak that involved 1 million gallons of brine.
In addition, the team collected samples from waters affected by smaller spills and samples from two spills reported in 2011 in Bottineau County.
“Unlike spilled oil, which starts to break down in soil, these spilled brines consist of inorganic chemicals, metals and salts that are resistant to biodegradation,” said Lauer, a Ph.D. student who was lead author of the study. “They don’t go away; they stay. This has created a legacy of radioactivity at spill sites.”
Vengosh said he was surprised that researchers detected high levels of contaminants at the Bottineau County sites four years after the spills occurred.
The study calls for long-term monitoring of waters downstream from spill sites to assess impacts to drinking water.
But the Duke researchers did not contact North Dakota regulators to find out what monitoring is already being done.
Glatt said the health department does extensive water and sediment sampling at spill sites, including and taking samples to ensure there is no contamination to the state’s drinking water supply.
“We’ve shared that with anybody who will ask,” Glatt said.
Vengosh said he thinks the results of any sampling that regulators do should be in the public domain.
Researchers plan to return to North Dakota to do more testing on the contamination from oil development, which they see as more widespread than other areas of the country, Vengosh said.
“North Dakota is definitely standing out relative to the other places in the U.S.,” Vengosh said.
Funding for the study came from the National Science Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Lisa DeVille of Mandaree said the study’s findings were not a surprise to her, particularly the tests from the Bear Den Bay spill, which is on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
“You can see that the pollution, the contaminants. It’s visible,” said DeVille, a member of the Dakota Resource Council, which assisted with site selection and field sampling.
Glatt said health officials agree that brine spills are far more detrimental to the environment than oil spills. That’s why the agency is working with stakeholders to develop guidelines for soil cleanup, he said.
In addition, the North Dakota Industrial Commission is considering tighter regulations on gathering pipelines to prevent spills from occurring.
In a response to the Duke study, a spokeswoman for the Department of Mineral Resources said those proposed rules will provide remedies to many of the issues raised in the study.
However, some of those new regulations are being opposed by oil industry representatives who say the rules go too far and suggest North Dakota postpone those policy discussions to the 2017 legislative session.