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Inside Energy: Saltwater spills


GUERIN: (DUCK AMBI UNDER) Daryl Peterson is walking through a field of soybeans on his family’s farm outside Antler, North Dakota. For the most part, the plants look pretty healthy. They’re knee high and deep green.

PETERSON: But you get out here, and you see they are wilting and dying.

GUERIN: (DUCK UNDER AMBI OF PETERSON TOUCHING SOYBEANS) He stoops down and runs his fingers through rows of brown shriveled soybeans.

PETERSON: This is saltwater damage, and it’s going to be very hard to ever get it completely cleaned up.

GUERIN: Right next to Peterson’s soybeans (FADE UP AMBI OF PUMPJACK) -- an old oil derrick…BOOST AMBI)

(DUCK UNDER AMBI) The saltwater that comes up from underground aquifers along with the oil is 10 to 30 times saltier than ocean water; it may contain fracking chemicals and radioactive material.  And it can leak out of old oil wells for decades.

I wanted to know how bad saltwater really is for farmland, so I looked up this guy.

CIHACEK: My name is Larry Cihacek and I’m an associate professor of soil science at North Dakota State University.

GUERIN: He says saltwater is actually worse for the soil than an oil spill. That’s because oil breaks down eventually. Salt doesn’t. It makes it impossible to grow crops for a really long time. 

CIHACEK: Tens of years, or hundreds of years, or even thousands of years depending on the climate.

GUERIN: North Dakota requires oil companies to pump saltwater back underground. So why all the spills?

ROBERTS: We have pipeline leaks, lightning strikes, leaks at oil well sites, we have illegal discharges by truckers …....

GUERIN: That’s Kris Roberts.  He works for the Department of Health and he inspects a lot of the spills. In fact, the day of our interview, he had cancel -- to go look at another spill. I met up with him at a gas station between inspections.

ROBERTS: If there’s a way it can happen, it probably will.

GUERIN: According to an Inside Energy analysis of state data, In the past year there were 810 saltwater spills in North Dakota, more than two a day. That comes out to about five gallons of saltwater spilled per minute.

BRUCE HICKS: The number of spills has increased because of the activity and the large number of wells that are being completed.

GUERIN:  Bruce Hicks is the assistant director of the state’s Department of Mineral Resources.
He says over 80 percent of all spills stay on the well pad and don’t contaminate ground or surface water. But here’s the thing -- in 2004, before the boom, there was one spill for every 16 wells.  Back then, there were just under 4000 wells.  By 2013, there were over 11,000 wells in North Dakota and the spill rate?  One per every six wells.

Lynn Helms is Bruce Hicks’ boss. He thinks the spike in the spill rate may be related to a short construction season and hundreds of miles of new saltwater pipelines going in.

HELMS: That’s about the best explanation I can come up with at this point, is that the majority are being caused by valve and piping connections. And that’s a construction practice.

GUERIN: Others - both in and outside the industry - speculate it has to do with a frenzy of new well construction, and companies cutting corners as they lay pipeline.


(DUCK SOUND UNDER) Back in Antler, Daryl Peterson is realistic about what he can expect.

PETERSON: (CROSS FADE WALKING THROUGH GRASS WITH FIELD AMBI) I think the goal should be no spills. That’s probably impossible.

GUERIN: Peterson’s oil wells were drilled two decades ago. And he says what’s happening here is a heads up for other landowners, especially those in North Dakota’s biggest and newest oil field, the Bakken.

PETERSON: If this type of behavior doesn’t change, it’s coming the Bakken way. When those wells get old and aren’t as productive, this same mentality will be there.

GUERIN: North Dakota already has more inspectors per well than many other Western states--including Wyoming and Colorado -- and they’re hiring more. But farmers say enforcement is too weak. North Dakota fines companies who don’t cooperate with the clean up up to $12,500 a day for a spill. But even then, the fines are frequently reduced.  

For Inside Energy, I’m Emily Guerin.

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration focusing on America’s energy issues. To see data compiled by Inside Energy on new wells and saltwater spills, go to INSIDEENERGY.org.

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