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.Bottineau County isn't in the heart of the current oil-producing region, but it has seen a lot of problems from both previous booms and from failing pipelines. However, wastewater spills are fairly common in the more active regions of the Bakken field:
“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.”
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.
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.I don't feel bad that Western Ohio isn't a part of the fracking boom. I'll take my land oil-poor and not contaminated. If that's not enough, I really don't need the population to quadruple around me.
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.”