Almost 3 million gallons of saltwater drilling waste spilled from a North Dakota pipeline earlier this month, a spill that’s now being called the state’s largest since the North Dakota oil boom began.
The brine, which leaked from a ruptured pipeline about 15 miles from the city of Williston, has affected two creeks, but it doesn’t currently pose a threat to drinking water or public health. The pipeline’s operator — Summit Midstream Partners — discovered the spill on Jan. 6, but officials didn’t find out about the true size of the spill until this week.
The pipeline company has been trying to clean up the spill by vacuuming water from the creek, but in doing so, they’re also capturing a lot of fresh water.
“The problem is that … the creekbed is kinda being replenished with water so we extract, it fills; we extract, it fills,” John Morgan, a spokesman for Summit Midstream told the Grand Forks-Herald.
North Dakota Department of Health Environmental Health Section Chief Dave Glatt said he hasn’t seen any impacts to wildlife yet, but officials won’t likely know the full impact until all the ice melts. Officials have discovered chloride concentrations in Blacktail Creek as high as 92,000 milligrams per liter — far higher than normal concentrations of about 10 to 20 milligrams per liter.
“That has the ability to kill aquatic life and so we’ll want to see if the aquatic life was able to get out of the way, and if they weren’t, how badly they were impacted,” Glatt said.
Blacktail Creek will ultimately be fully drained, but officials will continue to test the water and surrounding soil until the ice thaws in the spring. The other creek that was affected by the spill — Little Muddy Creek — won’t be drained because it’s a larger body of water, so it’s easier to dilute the saltwater that’s in the creek.
“We will be monitoring to see how quickly [Little Muddy Creek] gets back to natural background water quality conditions, and we are already starting to see that,” Glatt said. “It’s getting back pretty quickly.”
A main concern with brine that escapes into the environment is that it’s not your average, run-of-the-mill saltwater. The drilling waste can contain heavy metals and even radioactive material, and is up to eight times saltier than seawater. A July brine spill in North Dakota contaminated the soil and killed off vegetation. Brine can poison plants and also depletes water in the soil, creating an environment too dry for plants.
Brine spills are also tough to clean up, especially if they impact a wide area of soil — the best way to help the soil recover is to flush it with fresh water, but that often takes a toll on freshwater supplies. A 2006 million-gallon brine spill in North Dakota killed fish and forced ranchers to move, and still hasn’t totally been cleaned up.
These spills aren’t isolated incidents: in 2013 alone, there were 74 saltwater spills in North Dakota.