Drilling boom brings rising number of harmful waste spills bakken news bismarcktribune.com static electricity images

An analysis of data from leading oil- and gas-producing states found more than 180 million gallons of wastewater spilled from 2009 to 2014 in incidents involving ruptured pipes, overflowing storage tanks and even deliberate dumping. There were some 21,651 individual spills. The numbers are incomplete because many releases go unreported.

Though oil spills get more attention, wastewater spills can be more damaging. Microbes in soil eventually degrade spilled oil. Not so with wastewater — also known as brine, produced water or saltwater. Unless thoroughly cleansed, salt-saturated land dries up. Trees die. Crops cannot take root.

The data obtained from Texas, North Dakota, California, Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Kansas, Utah and Montana — states that account for more than 90 percent of U.S. onshore oil production. In 2009, there were 2,470 reported spills in the 11 states; by 2014, the total was 4,643. The amount spilled doubled from 21.1 million gallons in 2009 to 43 million in 2013.

Concentrated brine, much saltier than seawater, exists in rock thousands of feet underground. When oil and gas are pumped to the surface, the water comes up too, along with fluids and chemicals injected to crack open rock — the process known as hydraulic fracturing. Production of methane gas from coal deposits also generates wastewater, but it is less salty and harmful.

The spills usually occur as oil and gas are channeled to metal tanks for separation from the wastewater, and the water is delivered to a disposal site — usually an injection well that pumps it back underground. Pipelines, tank trucks and pits are involved.

• In North Dakota, a spill of nearly 1 million gallons in 2006 caused a massive die-off of fish and plants in the Yellowstone River and a tributary. Cleanup costs approached $2 million. Two larger spills since then scoured vegetation along an almost 2-mile stretch.

• Wastewater from pits seeped beneath a 6,000-acre cotton and nut farm near Bakersfield, California, and contaminated groundwater. Oil giant Aera Energy was ordered in 2009 to pay $9 million to grower Fred Starrh, who had to remove 2,000 acres from production.

• Brine leaks exceeding 40 million gallons on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana polluted a river, private wells and the municipal water system in Poplar. "It was undrinkable," said resident Donna Whitmer. "If you shook it up, it’d look all orange." Under a 2012 settlement, oil companies agreed to monitor the town’s water supply and pay $320,000 for improvements, including new wells.

• In Fort Stockton, Texas, officials in February accused Bugington Energy of illegally dumping 3 million gallons of wastewater in pastures. The Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District levied a $130,000 fine, alleging a threat to groundwater, but the company hasn’t paid, contending the district overstepped its authority.

State regulators ordered the oil company to clean up as much of the spill as possible and repair the site. But they didn’t impose fines or other punishment against Moore Petroleum Investment Corp., a tiny company in Norman that operates only a few wells.

Regardless of the damage done, the no-penalty policy is standard practice across the country after oilfield wastewater accidents by companies of all sizes. Spills by the tens of thousands have denuded farm and ranch lands and polluted waters in oil-producing areas for decades, yet only a small minority resulted in discipline. Regulators’ approach toward oil spills is largely the same.

"We certainly believe there’s a time and a place for that hammer, but we want to be very judicious in its use," said Matt Skinner, spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees the industry in that state. Moore Petroleum promptly arranged cleanup of its spill, which was accidental, he said.

"It’s almost a coddling relationship," said Jill Morrison of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, an environmental advocacy group in Wyoming, adding that it takes large court judgments or settlements for companies to mend their ways. "The industry looks at spills as a cost of doing business."

Most states don’t keep statistics on wastewater discharges that brought fines. Regulators said their top priority is getting companies to clean up the spills and restore the land. A punitive approach could inspire delays and even lawsuits, they said.

The drilling boom has vastly increased the agencies’ oversight challenge. Oklahoma has 67 field inspectors and other personnel to keep watch over roughly 185,000 active wells, and the Oil and Gas Division took a budget cut this year. State regulators rely on companies or landowners to notify them about wastewater spills. Without industry cooperation, more likely would go unreported, officials said.

Williams Production Co. of Tulsa, Oklahoma, had a series of wastewater releases from coal-bed methane gas production between 2006 and 2010 in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin that eroded rangeland and polluted surface waters. At least 11 spills happened on one ranch in less than a year. The state Department of Environmental Quality fined the company $60,000.

In the 2014 fiscal year, only about 3 percent of 62,385 oil and gas rule violations discovered during inspections, such as oil and wastewater spills and inadequate sign postings, were referred for enforcementaction, according to one state report.

In Bottineau County on the Canada border, grain farmer Darwin Peterson still fumes over a 2011 spill that polluted 24 acres of cropland and 10 ponds. No penalty has been levied, although regulators said a settlement is being negotiated as the responsible company, Petro Harvester Oil & Gas LLC, treats damaged soil.

Lynn Helms, director of the state Department of Mineral Resources, said his policy of avoiding penalties encourages better company behavior. When his office does propose fines, they are usually suspended before full payment, which Helms likened to putting the offender on probation.