ANTLER, N.D. — 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.
“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.”
In this July 10, 2014 file photo, saltwater leaks into a stream from a massive saltwater spill from an underground pipeline on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation near Mandaree, North Dakota. Tyler Bell / AP
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. While the boom has brought wealth, the rapid pace of extraction has sparked fears among the state’s farmers and ranchers about the long-term costs and consequences of land and water contamination, especially because hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, produces far more wastewater than past drilling techniques. (The process, which has exploded in North Dakota since 2008, requires injecting into each well millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals at high pressure in order to break up the shale underneath.) Recent spills, such as July’s massive, million-gallon wastewater spill on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, in western North Dakota, have further stoked fears of future contamination.
In this respect, Bottineau County offers an unusual, decades-long test case, since the region has a long history of contamination and a plethora of aging wells, tanks, pipelines, disposal sites and other infrastructure left from North Dakota’s earlier oil booms in the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s. And the experiment’s not over yet. At a recent meeting, Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s Oil and Gas Division, announced that a new wave of production is headed to Bottineau in 2015.
Nothing will grow
Bob Artz, a North Dakota farmer. Laura Gottesdiener
A daylong tour of Bottineau County demonstrates the effects of wastewater spills over the decades of drilling in this area.
“We could show you spills for two days straight,” said farmer Daryl Peterson, as he, his brother, Larry, and his wife, Christine, rode the dusty roads that crisscross the five most contaminated oil fields in the area: the Wayne field, the Wiley field, the Renville field, the Haas field and the North Haas field.
“Some of the pumping units are from the ’30s,” said Larry Peterson as he drove past Margaret Hellebust’s land, which sits on the Wayne oil field. Fifty years ago, a wastewater spill contaminated 80 acres of her property. “It’s sad because it doesn’t produce a crop,” Hellebust said later. Over the decades, her family has tried planting barley, wheat and sunflowers in the contaminated area, she said, but nothing grows. “As a landowner, you get so disgusted that every time you hear of an oil company, you just almost want to scream.”
Across the five oil fields, rusted wells have stood dormant for decades. Abandoned well heads jut out of fields, making it difficult for farmers to sow and harvest the area. One abandoned tank in the Haas field contains a thick layer of sludge that residents fear is radioactive. Other tanks — some active, others abandoned — have begun to slouch over the years. Earlier this summer, a leaning saltwater tank on farmer Darren Jespersen’s land collapsed, spilling hundreds of gallons of salt water onto his property.