Extreme contamination in Bird Creek tributary an ongoing mystery

by Kelly Bostian, originally posted on January 11, 2017


Dead fish and turtles, a creek with 100-degree water twice as salty as seawater, and a public water supply scare for the city of Pawhuska — and nearly five months later, answers are yet to come.

The Environmental Protection Agency continues to look for a pollution source on North Bird Creek in Osage County that was first reported on the Chapman Ranch on Aug. 14.

Investigators are looking closely at nearby oilfield underground injection control wells as a possible source.

“How it’s getting there nobody seems to be able to prove or do anything about it,” said R.D. Farr, who manages Chapman Ranch for Bass Brothers and first reported the contamination in the upper creek tributary.

In dry-weather periods, the creek is a series of pools in that area of Osage County, but it ultimately joins other tributaries to form the creek that flows from Pawhuska to Sperry through north Tulsa and into the Verdigris River.

“They don’t tell us much; that’s the hard part,” Farr said. “They’ve been monitoring it. They dug holes. They used some sort of machine to look for a salt plume below ground, but we don’t know anything yet.”

Documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act and Open Records Act requests filed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the EPA by Bigheart Times publisher Louise Red Corn indicate tests are ongoing, with particular interest in old oilfield wastewater injection wells, but offer no definitive word on the source of contamination or what will be done to remedy the situation.

The Times has been reporting on the situation the past several months. Attempts by the Tulsa World to reach EPA representatives the past week were unsuccessful. The Times filed its requests in November and received links to EPA Region 6 documents on Thursday. The most current documents in that release are dated Nov. 15.

Pawhuska City Manager Mike McCartney said that city’s water supply sources have not been affected but that “out of an abundance of caution” a switch was made to Pawhuska Lake, which is fed by Clear Creek, instead of a water supply linked to Bird Creek.

The city lake has long been a water source and always is available. At the time the spill was first reported, heavy rain was forecast and precise locations and the extent of pollution were not known, McCartney said. Until city officials have more answers about the issues upstream, water will continue to be drawn from the lake to avoid any possible tie to Bird Creek.

“I don’t want to say it’s not a problem because any time you have saltwater in a creek it’s an issue, but it has not affected us,” McCartney said.

Two residential water wells on the Chapman Ranch are a concern, however, as is exposure to livestock.

Farr moved livestock off pastures adjacent to the creek, as has the Reed Brothers ranch operation downstream.

“It’s actually in our horse pasture, is where it is,” Farr said. “We’ve got everything off of that creek for fear of the contamination.”

Farr was critical of EPA officials initially suspecting a dumping incident, as was rancher Ron Reed, who wrote a heated letter to Richard Winlock, with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Osage County, complaining of “zero response” almost two weeks after the contamination was reported.

“I have heard that your field men said it (the spill) could have been caused by 8 to 10 semi truck loads of salt water dumping into said creek down a narrow ranch road about a mile long or go to farthest house and turn around in the yard,” he wrote. “My thoughts would be that flying cows have a greater possibility than semi trucks dumping salt water in said location …”

Farr agreed, noting that casual observation showed a sheen and dead fish in the pool at his horse pasture while upstream pools were clear and had fish swimming in them.

“Logically, with the road, that just didn’t make sense,” he said.

A heavy rain shortly after the contamination was reported changed the minds of officials, according to a Nov. 1 summary emailed to staff from Enforcement Division section chief Willie Lane of EPA Region 6.

“Although the dumping theory was still the most logical, other sources could not be ruled out,” Lane wrote of early inspections. “Only a few days after the sampling event heavy rains in the watershed resulted in a flushing of the creek. EPA continued to monitor the (total soluble salt) values at the creek and found that days after the flushing event the values in the creek were elevated to a lesser degree, but were still very high (70,000 ppm). This evidence eliminated a dumping event as the source of the high TSS water. Indications observed including the rebound high TSS, the temperature anomaly, and the high correlation with produced water in the area shifted the focus of the investigation to a subsurface source entering the creek through some unknown pathway.”

BIA and EPA documents relate salinity readings of 80,000 ppm at times and creek-bottom temperatures of 90 to 100 degrees.

“The most recent development is an indication that two private water wells in the immediate vicinity may be seeing elevated levels of TSS,” Lane wrote, adding that results hadn’t been received on water samples collected by the owner of those wells.

Lane’s email notes a “very high degree of correlation” between the water chemistry and temperatures in the creek and that of water from two nearby injection wells: “During this (Oct. 4) evaluation it was also noted that the temperature profile in the creek showed that temperatures in the bottom 4-6 inches of the pools was generally over 90 (degrees).”

A Nov. 8 email to staff from Region 6 environmental scientist Jeanne Eckhart notes a list of “action items” and seems to be the latest indication of the status of the situation. The items include:

• Plot all injection wells so inspectors can see where they all are in the area

• Verify information on hand concerning injection wells in area from what is in permits, including the files and discussions with permitting

• Determine if heat is a pollutant under the CWA (Clean Water Act)

• Do a geological cross-section of the area

• Continue monitoring the site

• Conduct water sample analysis from the two nearby groundwater wells

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