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The Dark Side to North Dakota's Oil Boom

Oil companies are spilling and dumping drilling waste onto the region's land and into its waterways with increasing regularity.
 
 
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Oil drilling has sparked a frenzied prosperity in Jeff Keller's formerly quiet corner of western North Dakota in recent years, bringing an infusion of jobs and reviving moribund local businesses.

But Keller, a natural resource manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, has seen a more ominous effect of the boom, too: Oil companies are spilling and dumping drilling waste onto the region's land and into its waterways with increasing regularity.

Hydraulic fracturing — the controversial process behind the spread of natural gas drilling — is enabling oil companies to reach previously inaccessible reserves in North Dakota, triggering a turnaround not only in the state's fortunes, but also in domestic energy production. North Dakota now ranks second behind only Texas in oil output nationwide.

The downside is waste — lots of it. Companies produce millions of gallons of salty, chemical-infused wastewater, known as brine, as part of drilling and fracking each well. Drillers are supposed to inject this material thousands of feet underground into disposal wells, but some of it isn't making it that far.

According to data obtained by ProPublica, oil companies in North Dakota reported more than 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater or other fluids in 2011, about as many as in the previous two years combined. Many more illicit releases went unreported, state regulators acknowledge, when companies dumped truckloads of toxic fluid along the road or drained waste pits illegally.

State officials say most of the releases are small. But in several cases, spills turned out to be far larger than initially thought, totaling millions of gallons. Releases of brine, which is often laced with carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals, have wiped out aquatic life in streams and wetlands and sterilized farmland. The effects on land can last for years, or even decades.

Compounding such problems, state regulators have often been unable — or unwilling — to compel energy companies to clean up their mess, our reporting showed.

Under North Dakota regulations, the agencies that oversee drilling and water safety can sanction companies that dump or spill waste, but they seldom do: They have issued fewer than 50 disciplinary actions for all types of drilling violations, including spills, over the past three years.

Keller has filed several complaints with the state during this time span after observing trucks dumping wastewater and spotting evidence of a spill in a field near his home. He was rebuffed or ignored every time, he said.

"There's no enforcement," said Keller, 50, an avid outdoorsman who has spent his career managing Lake Sakakawea, a reservoir created by damming the Missouri River. "None."

State officials say they rely on companies to clean up spills voluntarily, and that in most cases, they do. Mark Bohrer, who oversees spill reports for the Department of Mineral Resources, the agency that regulates drilling, said the number of spills is acceptable given the pace of drilling and that he sees little risk of long-term damage.

Kris Roberts, who responds to spills for the Health Department, which protects state waters, agreed, but acknowledged that the state does not have the manpower to prevent or respond to illegal dumping.

"It's happening often enough that we see it as a significant problem," he said. "What's the solution? Catching them. What's the problem? Catching them."

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, a lobbying group, said the industry is doing what it can to minimize spills and their impacts.

"You're going to have spills when you have more activity," he said. "I would think North Dakotans would say the industry is doing a good job."

 
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