Tribal members question water quality in response to new Bakken study

by Amy Dalrymple, originally posted on May 18, 2016


Tribal members raised concerns Wednesday during a community event that featured a Duke University researcher who recently studied the impact of wastewater spills in North Dakota’s Oil Patch.

The study, which found widespread soil and water contamination from brine spills, reinforces the need for better monitoring of water quality, said Joletta Bird Bear, interim president of the grassroots group Fort Berthold P.O.W.E.R.

“It seems like the oil and gas development went really fast, but here we are with monitoring and we’re way behind,” said Bird Bear, also a member of the Dakota Resource Council, which organized the event.

Avner Vengosh, a Duke University geochemistry and water quality professor who has been studying the effects of hydraulic fracturing since 2010, said the magnitude of spills in North Dakota is unlike what he’s seen in other oil-producing states.

While many critics of fracking focus on chemicals that are used in the process, Vengosh said the wastewater that is produced from a well along with the oil may be as toxic and pose an even greater risk to human health and the environment.

Compared to produced water – or brine – that Vengosh has studied throughout the U.S., the Bakken produced water has the highest level of salinity and highest level of ammonium, Vengosh said. Soil contaminated by brine also contains an accumulation of naturally occurring radioactive material, he said.

The study analyzed samples from two of North Dakota’s largest brine spills, including a July 2014 pipeline leak that involved 1 million gallons of brine on the Fort Berthold reservation.

“Following the brine spill, there is no vegetation,” Vengosh said. “It’s all dead.”

One woman at the event asked whether the water at Fort Berthold is safe to drink.

Vengosh said it’s unlikely the spills would have an immediate impact on drinking water, but he cautioned about the long-term impacts of contaminants becoming part of the environment.

“I don’t think there is a human health risk immediate from that,” Vengosh said. “One has to do monitoring and to actually evaluate whether drinking sources downstream are safe.”

Vengosh suggested that community members push to have their drinking water tested at least every six months, including testing for heavy metals and salt.

The North Dakota Department of Health, which does water and sediment sampling at spill sites, does not have jurisdiction at Fort Berthold. Several attendees at Wednesday’s event questioned whether the tribe’s Environmental Protection Agency has enough resources to adequately respond to an increase in spills.

Fort Berthold has 1,438 active oil wells and accounts for about 16 percent of North Dakota’s oil production.

“We really need some technical help as to what’s really happening and how it should be dealt with,” said Marilyn Hudson, a tribal member from Parshall.

Tom Abe, a science instructor at Fort Berthold Community College, said the Duke study provides a characterization of the brine, which can help communities better monitor for future contamination.

“It’s just tainting our natural environment, almost irreversibly,” Abe said.

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