Oil and gas fracking operators in North Dakota have dumped at least 1.7 million gallons of brine and 716,000 gallons of oil on the western plains between 2009 and 2011. And that's just what they've reported.
The economic boom for that state is undeniable -- it's now the second largest producer of energy in the country. But ProPublica, the non-profit, public interest investigative journalism organization, just published detailed look at what that boom is doing to the landscape. It's not pretty.
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.
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Reporter Nicholas Kusnetz describes the economic explosion -- unemployment is now three percent, and the long slow decline in population has been reversed by an influx of new workers.We wrote about the social and economic impacts last year. But rents are as high as those in New York city, crime is up, and in many places the ground has been rendered sterile by toxic spills. Kusnetz writes:
Six years ago, a four-inch saltwater pipeline ruptured just outside Linda Monson's property line, leaking about a million gallons of salty wastewater.
As it cascaded down a hill and into Charbonneau Creek, which cuts through Monson's pasture, the spill deposited metals and carcinogenic hydrocarbons in the soil. The toxic brew wiped out the creek's fish, turtles and other life, reaching 15 miles downstream.
After suing Zenergy Inc., the oil company that owns the line, Monson reached a settlement that restricts what she can say about the incident.
"When this first happened, it pretty much consumed my life," Monson said. "Now I don't even want to think about it."
The company has paid a $70,000 fine and committed to cleaning the site, but the case shows how difficult the cleanup can be. When brine leaks into the ground, the sodium binds to the soil, displacing other minerals and inhibiting plants' ability to absorb nutrients and water. Short of replacing the soil, the best option is to try to speed the natural flushing of the system, which can take decades.
Zenergy has tried both. According to a Department of Mineral Resources report, the company has spent more than $3 million hauling away dirt and pumping out contaminated groundwater — nearly 31 million gallons as of December 2010, the most recent data available.
But more than a dozen acres of Monson's pasture remain fenced off and out of use. The cattle no longer drink from the creek, which was their main water source. Zenergy dug a well to replace it.
Shallow groundwater in the area remains thousands of times saltier than it should be and continues to leak into the stream and through the ground, contaminating new areas.
What's disheartening is that state and federal regulators let it go.
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."