“When this first happened, it pretty much consumed my life. Now I don’t even want to think about it.”
Telling personal stories
The oil and gas boom has been underway for a number of years in many locations across North America, and there are now a lot of stories about individuals and families whose lives have been personally affected. This post is part of a regular series of those stories on this blog to help you envision what could happen if drilling expands along the Beartooth Front. Look for these once a week.
Today’s story comes from the Bakken area in North Dakota, near the Montana border. It’s an area where, as the story tells it, “nobody’s interested in anything but drilling everything faster, quicker, in the mad rush for money.”
Previous posts in this series:
Tim and Christine Ruggiero, Wise County, Texas
Laura Amos, Encana, Colorado
Helen Ricker, Poplar, Montana
Diana Daunheimer, Didsbury, Alberta
John Fenton, Pavillion, Wyoming
Linda Monson, McKenzie County, North Dakota
For as long as anyone can remember springs have fed into Charbonneau Creek west of Alexander, North Dakota. Named for the husband of Sakakawea, who guided Lewis and Clark through the region two centuries ago, the fresh water of the “crick” has always supported cattle ranchers in that part of McKenzie County as it flows 18 miles northwest into the Yellowstone River.
However, after a ruptured pipeline spilled nearly 950,000 gallons of highly concentrated salt water onto the land things have not been the same.
The spill sent salt water, which is a normal waste product of oil production and is about 20 times more saline than seawater, flowing over the ground across Monson’s property and along a drainage ditch into a dry stock dam, before overflowing a beaver dam. 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.
The pipeline was a new one that was serving an oil field development off the Jack 1-29 H well, southwest of Alexander. After suing Zenergy, 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.”
Cows still don’t like the water
The response to the spill didn’t start out well.
According to documents in Monson’s dropped lawsuit, Zenergy had spilled saltwater on her land once before. The company’s first response was to offer her a few hundred dollars in exchange for her signing away rights to hold Zenergy liable for anything that happened on her land ever again, according to her lawsuit.
Zenergy said in its response in court documents that it denied all such allegations by Monson, although it agreed that its spill had damaged her property.
She and her neighbor each had sued Zenergy for more than $75,000. Their attorney, Derrick Braaten of Bismarck, said he can’t discuss it, except that obviously if his clients weren’t satisfied with the settlement, he wouldn’t have advised them to sign on.
After the first months, the company was responsive, she says, watching as a Zenergy employee drives in to check on a watermonitoring well.
“Since this has happened, they have been good to us,” she says. “I can’t say they haven’t.”
But Monson says the water in Charbonneau Creek was well-liked by her cattle before the spill. Although the health department says the water is back to “pre-spill conditions,” her cows still haven’t shown much interest.
“Problems waiting to happen”
Every oil well has underground pipelines taking the saltwater to nearby tanks for such disposal. Those are problems waiting to happen, says Donny Nelson, a rancher from Keene, ND, who visited Monson’s ranch to see the damage from the spill.
Nelson says state and federal regulators don’t do enough to make sure such accidents don’t happen or to compel action by oil companies when they do.
A saltwater spill “sterilizes the soil,” he says, and by comparison, an oil spill in the Williston Basin is easily cleaned up. Recently Nelson found a small saltwater leak from an underground pipe on his land near the Blue Buttes east of Keene. The oil company didn’t even know the pipeline was there, he said.
The company cleaned up the spill, hauling in top soil it bought from Nelson to replace the soil wrecked by the saltwater. But there’s still a bare spot of several hundred square feet where nothing will grow, Nelson said.
It’s another example of a larger potential problem, dating to the beginning of oil production here in the 1950s, he said.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of pipelines through here,” Nelson tells visitors, pointing out a nearby area that includes some of his land. “In about a mile and three quarters, they ran 87 pipelines and they only knew about 50 of them. Many of them were abandoned.”
Nelson can show visitors sites on his land where lengths of old rusty pipe or other oilfield equipment lay half-hidden in this year’s rich grass. In one quiet valley where he winters his cattle, two huge old oil tanks sit, battered, half fallen in.
“They’ve been out here since the 1960s,” he said. The original oil company is long gone and now it seems like nobody is responsible for cleaning up the mess, Nelson said.
He’s had a calf get stuck inside an oil company’s fence around an old, abandoned well head, Nelson said.
“Now in the mad rush of the boom, nobody’s interested in anything but drilling everything faster, quicker, in the mad rush for money.”
Nelson and others have pushed to get state and federal agencies to increase bonding levels required of oil companies to match the cost of cleaning up spills.
“The oil industry gets away with stuff no other industry does,” Nelson said. “They haven’t kept up with inflation. They put up a $250,000 bond and they can drill as many wells as they want.”