Fracking Dividing Communities Across Colorado

Health, Safety Concerns Remain

Fracking isn’t new to the Rocky Mountains. The oil industry drilled its first fracking well in Colorado near Boulder in 1901. The practice gained notoriety in the state with the infamous oil shale project near Parachute several decades ago, but it collapsed and remained dormant for years. Since then, fracking has become a modern day gold rush for many people in Colorado. It’s been a nightmare for others.

Unfortunately, health and safety concerns continue to take a back seat in public policy and private practice. The debate is gaining momentum again as oil prices and drilling activity rebound at a rapid pace.

Today, oil and gas companies continue concentrating the majority of their drilling in Weld County near Greeley and Garfield County near Rifle. Weld County taps into the Niobrara Shale Foundation, which also covers portions of Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. The second largest area in Colorado for fracking is in Garfield County, which gets its resources from the Piceance Basin. The Piceance Basin is thought to have one of the richest and thickest oil shale deposits in the world. Because Colorado is isolated from the major refining centers, producers must absorb a $12-$14 per barrel discount to cover transportation costs.

fracking and public health

Dinosaurs vs. Technology

  • Colorado accounts for almost 4 percent of U.S. total crude oil production and also holds about 4 percent of the nation’s proved crude oil reserves;
  • Colorado has the sixth largest natural gas reserves, and 11 of the nation’s 100 biggest natural gas fields are located in the state;
  • Electricity from renewable sources has more than doubled since 2010 to around 20 percent of Colorado’s net electricity generation in 2016, led by increased wind power from the state’s roughly 1,900 turbines;
  • Colorado leads the nation in gross withdrawals of coal-bed methane from producing wells; and
  • In 2016, Colorado was ranked 10th for installed solar power capacity and 11th in the nation for actual solar electricity generation.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Center (EIA), Colorado’s production of crude oil surged in 2010. Since then, production has more than tripled in the last five years–peaking in August 2015 at 357 thousand barrels per day (kbd). Subsequently, there was a decrease in production when oil prices crashed from $100 per barrel to $26 per barrel, but the market is rising fast. EIA’s latest Colorado production data from April 2017 puts production at 352 kbd (up from 317 kbd in 2016). A recent economic report prepared by the Business Research Division of the Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado Boulder for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association found that oil and gas development added $31.7 billion to Colorado’s economy in 2014.

Colorado already is dotted with hydraulic fracking wells/ More are on the way. This growth is reviving the turmoil that accompanied the last boom, pitting neighbors against neighbors and communities against corporations. It’s also reviving talk about collusion, corruption and public policy that ignores public opinion, public health and public safety.

Concerned residents who live near these areas are worried about groundwater contamination, chemical exposure, air pollution impacts, and fracking-induced earthquakes. They also have concerns about industrial accidents. As such, fracking is a major issue at the ballot box in Colorado. Both opponents and supporters try to influence the outcomes.

  • In 2012, the city of Longmont passed an initiative that put an indefinite ban on fracking;

  • In 2013, the city of Lafayette approved a similar measure;

  • In 2013, Broomfield, Boulder and Fort Collins passed initiatives that imposed five-year fracking suspensions;

  • In 2014, the city of Loveland defeated an initiative to suspend fracking for two years;

  • In 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court denied local governments the right to make home rules on fracking. So much for decentralized government and citizen-based democracy.

In few places is the tension more evident than along Colorado’s Front Range, where a fracking boom is colliding with a population explosion. Drilling applications in the state have risen 70 percent in just a year, while the area north of Denver is expected to double in population by 2050.

Read The Full Story About Fracking Colorado

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Denying Climate Change Is Like Denying Gravity

Global Warming Driving Extreme Weather

When people, organizations and corporations oppose efforts to reduce global warming and climate change, what are they actually fighting for? An energy policy that depends on hostile, foreign regimes? Energy policies that promote waste and inefficiency? Dirty energy and air pollution? Domestic exploration and development that contaminates dwindling water supplies? Short-sighted energy and transportation policies that grease the wheels of corporate greed?

air pollution China

If we let deadly carbon dioxide build up in our homes, it kills us. If we let carbon dioxide build up in our atmosphere it’s just as toxic, but slightly more diluted–with the compounding effects of trapping heat in the limited confines of our atmosphere.

air pollution in China

We should fight deadly carbon gases just because of their toxic nature, let alone the potential to add to global warming and the more visible effects of climate change.

Unfortunately, some scientists have erred in their methodology and their politics. Just like the experts on the other side of the debate, they are not above stupidity. Extreme weather events and trends may not be conclusive proof for some people, but who can deny that air pollution, carbon buildup and deforestation are bad ideas for multiple reasons.

Indeed, the evidence of climate change is piling up in the form of extreme weather events in different places, extreme temperatures, droughts, floods and rising tides–depending where you might reside. The toxins in our air, water and bodies are piling up, too.

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If we can’t rally to fight society’s contribution to climate change trends, then fight air and water pollution, deforestation, waste, greed, corruption and ignorance. The result will be a healthier and more sustainable future for all of god’s creations–especially your children and grandchildren.

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Frack Wastewater Radioactive

Frack Waste Poses Risks To Air, Water

By modern definition, anything that threatens the safety of air, food and water is classified as bioterrorism. However, the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing (frac, frack, or fracking), is a legitimate threat to public and environmental health. Yet, the practice is proliferating around the globe. Its contents remain mostly a mystery. But fracking wastewater has revealed one of its secrets: It can be highly radioactive. And yet no agency really regulates its handling, transport or disposal.

The oil and gas industry can’t prove that the practice is safe. Instead, they hide behind ignorance and misinformation. They say that there is no proof of harm. Not so fast, slick. As the following story outlines, the evidence is real, measurable and mounting.

frack and public health

Randy Moyer hasn’t been able to work in 14 months. He’s seen more than 40 doctors, has 10 prescriptions to his name and no less than eight inhalers stationed around his apartment.

Moyer said he began transporting brine, the wastewater from gas wells that have been hydraulically fractured, for a small hauling company in August 2011. He trucked brine from wells to treatment plants and back to wells, and sometimes cleaned out the storage tanks used to hold wastewater on drilling sites. By November 2011, the 49-year-old trucker was too ill to work. He suffered from dizziness, blurred vision, headaches, difficulty breathing, swollen lips and appendages, and a fiery red rash that covered about 50 percent of his body.

“They called it a rash,” he said of the doctors who treated him during his 11 trips to the emergency room. “A rash doesn’t set you on fire.”

Moyer spent most of last year in his Portage apartment, lying on the floor by the open screen door because his skin burned so badly, while doctors scrambled to reach a diagnosis. He says the only thing that has helped ease his symptoms is a homeopathic tea recommended by others in the community who have similar symptoms.

Today, he has a box brimming with doctors’ bills but still no diagnosis. Moyer believes he’s sick from the chemicals in fracking fluid and the ensuing wastewater — and from radiation exposure. And he may be right.

government corruption

Studies from the U.S. Geological Survey, Penn State University and environmental groups all found that waste from fracking can be radioactive — and in some cases, highly radioactive.

A geological survey report found that millions of barrels of wastewater from unconventional wells in Pennsylvania and conventional wells in New York were 3,609 times more radioactive than the federal limit for drinking water and 300 times more radioactive than a Nuclear Regulatory Commission limit for nuclear plant discharges.

And Mark Engle, the USGS research geologist who co-authored the report, said that fracking flowback from the Marcellus shale contains higher radiation levels than similar shale formations.

“There (isn’t) a lot of data but in general, the Marcellus appears to be anomalously high,” Engle said. He said the USGS had agreements with a handful of oil and gas companies to sample the flowback from their wells for this particular report. These companies, he said, did not wish to be identified.

Engle also says that both the Marcellus shale itself and the wastewater generated from fracking are both radioactive, but he doesn’t know just how much radium the shale contains. He said it “may be fairly small, since radium is so soluble.” But he also said this solubility would make it easier for the radium to dissolve into the brine itself — and come to the surface.

The USGS is still studying the issue. They are currently sampling — or testing — produced waters from all types of oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, North Dakota and Montana, including those from the Marcellus shale. A few more reports are in the works, Engle said.

A recent study by an undergraduate student and two professors in Penn State’s Department of Geosciences also found that fracking wastewater contains high levels of radium — and barium.

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The study, written by Penn State alum Lara Haluszczak, professor emeritus Arthur Rose, and professor and head of the Department of Geosciences Lee Kump, describes the radium and barium found in fracking flowback as originating from ancient brines instead of the fracking fluid used by the industry to frack wells. The report, which focused on flowback within 90 days of fracking in primarily Pennsylvania wells, has been approved for publication in the International Association of Geochemistry’s journal Applied Geochemistry.

“Even if it’s (radioactive materials) diluted quite a bit, it’s still going to be above the drinking water limits,” Rose told Penn State Live, the university’s official news source. “There’s been very little research into this.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has an eye on the issue. In December, the agency released the progress report of a full report studying the effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources. In it, the EPA says it plans to sample ground and surface water for radium-226, radium-229 and gross alpha and beta radiation, as well as other substances. It also says that hydraulic fracturing can increase the mobility of naturally occurring radioactive material within the Marcellus. The full report is scheduled for a 2014 release.

Another report, issued by the New York-based Grassroots Environmental Education by Ivan White, a career scientist for the National Council on Radiation Protection, came to a similar conclusion as the USGS and Penn State reports, maintaining that fracking can produce waste much higher in radiation than previously thought.

White’s report tested 11 vertical wells that were conventionally drilled in New York and found that levels of radium in those wells averaged at 8,433 picocuries per liter. The EPA’s limit for drinking water is 5 pCi/L for both radium-226 and radium-228 combined.

While the vertical wells tested and horizontal wells used for fracking are undoubtedly different, both White and Engle say that horizontal wells have a higher chance of producing radioactive waste than their vertical counterparts, because horizontal wells’ exposure to the Marcellus is much greater, due to the mile-long horizontal bores coursing straight through the radioactive shale.

White’s report was written in response to proposed fracking in the Marcellus region of southern New York state.

So where does this leave Pennsylvanians? With the state’s 4,500 producing wells, Pennsylvania is already much deeper into the business of fracking than the Empire State.

And that means more potentially radioactive fracking waste to deal with.

A 2011 Penn State Extension report says an average Marcellus well can use from 3 million to 8 million gallons of water in just one week, 10 percent of which — or 300,000 to 800,000 gallons — resurfaces in the next 30 days in the form of wastewater. It also says that according to Pennsylvania’s DEP data, the industry produced about 235 million gallons of wastewater in the second half of 2010. These numbers were self-reported by the industry.

So just where do these millions of gallons of wastewater end up? The water can be treated and used to frack more wells, sent out of state for disposal in injection wells, or in rare cases, treated and released into waterways, officials say.

“Secretary (Michael) Krancer’s call to industry secured, nearly overnight, a sea change in disposal practices,” said DEP spokesman John Poister of the department secretary’s 2011 request to the drilling industry to stop delivering wastewater to treatment plants that would treat the water and release it into public water sources.

“Wastewater from unconventional wells is not being discharged into waterways, (and) recycling of unconventional flowback and brines has never been higher,” Poister said. He also said most of the industry’s fracking wastewater is reused to frack more wells.

But Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action, isn’t convinced.

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“I can’t say for certain that there are plants definitely taking wastewater and discharging it,” he said. “Certainly there are discharges happening from facilities that raise concerns, especially among the upper Allegheny (River).” Hvozdovich declined to identify specific facilities.

“Is it possible they are taking natural gas wastewater?” he said. “Yes, but I don’t know that for a fact.”

And Poister does — if reluctantly — admit there could be some fracking wastewater finding its way into waterways.

“It can, but that would be a rarity,” he said. “We believe most wastewater is recycled, and the data on the statewide waste reports bears that out. Drillers would have to pay to have the water treated for discharge into waterways, (so) it’s more cost-efficient for them to recycle. There is some wastewater from other drilling activities and other sources that is discharged after treating, which is why under the state’s Clean Water Act, Pennsylvania’s DEP issues National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits to treatment facilities.”

These permits are required to be issued under the Federal Clean Water Act and establish pollution limits in both household and industrial wastes that are treated at municipal wastewater treatment plants, DEP data says. In order to be discharged, the water must fall within the agency’s 500 mg/L of total dissolved solids regulation and also have a NPDS permit.

But environmentalists say these treatment plants simply aren’t equipped to deal with radioactive wastewater.

“As fracking has rapidly expanded, we’re seeing much more of this radioactive waste, which is a problem, since traditional landfills and wastewater treatment plants aren’t accustomed to handling it,” said Adam Kron, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. “In fact, wastewater treatment plants aren’t able to remove radioactivity, and we’re starting to hear accounts of landfills receiving — and sometimes turning away — radioactive cuttings and sand from across state lines.”

And as for Moyer, there are five recently permitted wells near his home in Portage. He plans to leave the area, if not for himself, then for his 7-year-old son. He doesn’t think his body can take more exposure to fracking and its effects.

“It’s time to move if you want to live,” he said. “Stay if you want to die. And I want to live.”

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Fracking Threatens Public Health

Frack Attack On Land, Water, and  Communities

As the U.S. pushes the frack controversy down people’s throats in pursuit of short-term energy independence, we may find ourselves importing water and food to replace damaged domestic resources. It’s surprising that Homeland Security laws aren’t being imposed to cease the threats of permanent contamination and overall terrorism to people, land, livestock, groundwater and surface water runoff.

The Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2003 is supposed to protect our food and water supplies from terrorist threats. That law should apply to terrorists of all sorts–whether they be from foreign and domestic extremists or capitalists.

frac and water pollution

Compounding the problem is the fact that government regulators have been asleep at the wheel, if not outright influenced by corporations to shade data and remain silent in the face of legitimate, proven risks. Plus, as drought conditions worsen across the U.S., frac operations are consuming incredible amounts of water, while contaminating what is left for families, farmers and ranchers. It seems as though we are willing to risk our long-term survival for short-term energy gains. Most of these wells have minimum long-term potential.

For example, as ProPublica explained in a recent article, drilling has sparked a boom in Jeff Keller’s formerly quiet corner of western North Dakota in recent years, bringing an infusion of jobs and reviving dormant local businesses.

But Keller, a natural resource manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, has seen the downside of the boom: he has observed oil drillers spilling and dumping drilling waste onto the region’s land and into its waterways with increasing frequency. (In some cases, radioactive water has been dumped into public sewage systems, which opens up another can of worms).

Hydraulic fracturing (FRAC) — the controversial process behind the spread of natural gas drilling — is enabling oil companies to reach previously inaccessible reserves in North Dakota (and other regions of the world), triggering a turnaround not only in the state’s fortunes, but also in domestic energy production. North Dakota now ranks second behind only Texas in oil output nationwide.

The downside is waste — tons of it. Companies produce millions of gallons of salty, chemical-infused wastewater, known as brine, as part of drilling and fracking each well. Drillers are supposed to inject this material thousands of feet underground into disposal wells, but some of it isn’t making it that far. Even the waste that is injected as required, poses risks due to seismic shifts and the unknowns of hydro-geology deep inside the earth.

According to data obtained by ProPublica, oil companies in North Dakota reported more than 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater or other fluids in 2011, about as many as in the previous two years combined. Many more illicit releases went unreported, state regulators acknowledge, when companies dumped truckloads of toxic fluid along the road or drained waste pits illegally.

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State officials say most of the releases are small. But in several cases, spills turned out to be much larger than reported, totaling millions of gallons. Releases of brine, which is often laced with carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals, have wiped out aquatic life in streams and wetlands and sterilized farmland. Livestock also has been impacted, which should serve as a bio-sensor for human health impacts. The effects on land can last for years, or even decades. Land values can be severely impacted and they could ultimately be condemned as Superfund sites.

Compounding such problems, state regulators have often been unable — or unwilling — to compel energy companies to clean up their mess. In some cases, they have been complicit in a campaign of coordinated silence.

Under North Dakota regulations, the agencies that oversee drilling and water safety can sanction companies that dump or spill waste, but they rarely take such action: They have issued fewer than 50 disciplinary actions for all types of drilling violations, including spills, over the past three years.

Keller has filed several complaints with the state during this time span after observing trucks dumping wastewater and spotting evidence of a spill in a field near his home. He was rebuffed or ignored every time, he said.

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“There’s no enforcement,” said Keller, 50, an avid outdoorsman who has spent his career managing Lake Sakakawea, a reservoir created by damming the Missouri River. “None.”

State officials say they rely on companies to clean up spills voluntarily, and that in most cases, they do. Mark Bohrer, who oversees spill reports for the Department of Mineral Resources, the agency that regulates drilling, said the number of spills is acceptable given the pace of drilling and that he sees little risk of long-term damage.

Kris Roberts, who responds to spills for the Health Department, which protects state waters, agreed, but acknowledged that the state does not have the manpower to prevent or respond to illegal dumping.

“It’s happening often enough that we see it as a significant problem,” he said. “What’s the solution? Catching them. What’s the problem? Catching them.”

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, a lobbying group, said the industry is doing what it can to minimize spills and their impacts.

“You’re going to have spills when you have more activity,” he said. “I would think North Dakotans would say the industry is doing a good job.”

In response to rising environmental concerns related to drilling waste, North Dakota’s legislature passed a handful of new regulations this year, including a rule that bars storing wastewater in open pits.

Still, advocates for landowners say they have seen little will, at either the state or federal level, to impose limits that could slow the pace of drilling.

The Obama administration is facilitating drilling projects on federal land in western North Dakota by expediting environmental reviews. North Dakota’s Gov. Jack Dalrymple has urged energy companies to see his administration as a “faithful and long-term partner.”

“North Dakota’s political leadership is still in the mold where a lot of our oil and gas policy reflects a strong desire to have another oil boom,” said Mark Trechock, who headed the Dakota Resource Council, a landowner group that has pushed for stronger oversight, until his retirement this year. “Well, we got it now.”


Crazy Energy Policy

Keller’s office in Williston is as good a spot as any to see the impacts of the oil boom. The tiny prefab shack — cluttered with mounted fish, piles of antlers and a wolf pelt Keller bought in Alaska — is wedged between a levee that holds back Missouri River floodwaters and a new oil well, topped by a blazing gas flare. Just beyond the oil well sits an intersection where Keller estimates he saw an accident a week during one stretch last year due to increased traffic from drilling.

Keller describes the changes to his hometown in a voice just short of a yell, as if he’s competing with nearby engine noise. Local grocery stores can barely keep shelves stocked and the town movie theater is so crowded it seats people in the aisle, he said. The cost of housing has skyrocketed, with some apartments fetching rents similar to those in New York City.

“With the way it is now,” Keller said, “you’re getting to the crazy point.”

Oil companies are drilling upwards of 200 wells each month in northwestern North Dakota, an area roughly twice the size of New Jersey.

North Dakota is pumping more than 575,000 barrels of oil a day now, more than double what the state produced two years ago. Expanded drilling in the state has helped overall U.S. oil production grow for the first time in a quarter century, stoking hopes for greater energy independence.

It has also reinvigorated North Dakota’s once-stagnant economy. Unemployment sits at 3 percent. The activity has reversed a population decline that began in the mid-1980s, when the last oil boom went bust.

The growth has come at a cost, however. At a conference on oil field infrastructure in October, one executive noted that McKenzie County, which sits in the heart of the oil patch and had a population of 6,360 people in 2010, required nearly $200 million in road repairs.

The number of spill reports, which generally come from the oil companies themselves, nearly doubled from 2010 to 2011. Energy companies report their spills to the Department of Mineral Resources, which shares them with the Health Department. The two agencies work together to investigate incidents.

In December, a stack of reports a quarter-inch thick piled up on Kris Roberts’ desk. He received 34 new cases in the first week of that month alone.

“Is it a big issue?” he said. “Yes, it is.”

The Health Department has added three staffers to handle the influx and the Department of Mineral Resources is increasing its workforce by 30 percent, but Roberts acknowledges they can’t investigate every report.

Even with the new hires, the Department of Mineral Resources still has fewer field inspectors than agencies in other drilling states. Oklahoma, for example, which has comparable drilling activity, has 58 inspectors to North Dakota’s 19.

Of the 1,073 releases reported last year, about 60 percent involved oil and one-third spread brine. In about two-thirds of the cases, material was not contained to the accident site and leaked into the ground or waterways.

But the official data gives only a partial picture, Roberts said, missing an unknown number of unreported incidents.

“One, five, 10, 100? If it didn’t get reported, how do you count them?” he said.

frack waste disposal and pollution

He said truckers often dump their wastewater rather than wait in line at injection wells. The Department of Mineral Resources asks companies how much brine their wells produce and how much they dispose of as waste, but its inspectors don’t audit those numbers. Short of catching someone in the act, there’s no way to stop illegal dumping.

The state also has no real estimate for how much fluid spills out accidentally from tanks, pipes, trucks and other equipment. Companies are supposed to report spill volumes, but officials acknowledge the numbers are often inexact or flat-out wrong. In 40 cases last year, the company responsible didn’t know how much had spilled so it simply listed the volume of fluid as zero.

In one case last July, workers for Petro Harvester, a small, Texas-based oil company, noticed a swath of dead vegetation in a field near one of the company’s saltwater disposal lines. The company reported the spill the next day, estimating that 12,600 gallons of brine had leaked.

When state and county officials came to assess the damage, however, they found evidence of a much larger accident. The leak, which had gone undetected for days or weeks, had sterilized about 24 acres of land. Officials later estimated the spill to be at least 2 million gallons of brine, Roberts said, which would make it the largest ever in the state.

Yet state records still put the volume at 12,600 gallons and Roberts sees no reason to change it.

“It’s almost like rubbing salt in a raw wound,” Roberts said, criticizing efforts to tabulate a number as “bean counting.” Changing a report would not change reality, nor would it help anyone, he added. “If we try to go back and revisit the past over and over and over again, what’s it going to do? Nothing good.”

In a written statement, Petro Harvester said tests showed the spill had not contaminated groundwater and that it would continue monitoring the site for signs of damage. State records show the company hired a contractor to cover the land with 40 truckloads of a chemical that leaches salt from the soil.

Nearly a year later, however, even weeds won’t grow in the area, said Darwin Peterson, who farms the land. While Petro Harvester has promised to compensate him for lost crops, Peterson said he hasn’t heard from the company in months and he doesn’t expect the land to be usable for years. “It’s pretty devastating,” he said.

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Little Frack Regulation

The Department of Mineral Resources and the Health Department have the authority to sanction companies that spill or dump fluids, but they rarely do.

The Department of Mineral Resources has issued just 45 enforcement actions over the last three years. Spokeswoman Alison Ritter could not say how many of those were for spills or releases, as opposed to other drilling violations, or how many resulted in fines. Ritter said case files containing this information could be reviewed, but only in person in the agency’s office in Bismarck, N.D.

The Health Department has taken just one action against an oil company in the past three years, citing Continental Resources for oil and brine spills that turned two streams into temporary toxic dumps. The department initially fined Continental $328,500, plus about $14,000 for agency costs. Ultimately, however, the state settled and Continental paid just $35,000 in fines.

The agency has not yet penalized Petro Harvester for the July spill, thought it has issued a notice of violation and could impose a fine in the future, Roberts said, one of several spill-related enforcement actions the agency is considering.

Derrick Braaten, a Bismarck lawyer whose firm represents dozens of farmers and landowner groups, said his clients often get little support from regulators when oil companies damage their property.

State officials step in in the largest cases, he said, but let smaller ones slide. Landowners can sue, but most prefer to take whatever drillers offer rather than taking their chances in court.

“The oil company will say, that’s worth $400 an acre, so here’s $400 for ruining that acre,” Braaten said.

Daryl Peterson, a client of Braaten’s who is not related to Darwin Peterson, said a series of drilling waste releases stretching back 15 years have rendered several acres unusable of the 2,000 or so he farms. The state has not compelled the companies that caused the damage to repair it, he said. Peterson hasn’t wanted to spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would take to haul out the dirt and replace it, so the land lies fallow.

“I pay taxes on that land,” he said.

At least 15 North Dakota residents, frustrated with state officials’ inaction, have taken drilling-related complaints to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the last two years, records show.

Last September, for example, a rancher near Williston told the EPA that Brigham Oil and Gas had plowed through the side of a waste pit, sending fluid into the pond his cattle drink from and a nearby creek. When the rancher called Brigham to complain, he said, an employee told him this was “the way they do business.”

A spokeswoman for Statoil, which acquired Brigham, said the company stores only fresh water in open pits, not wastewater, and that “we can’t remember ever having responded in such a manner” to a report about a spill.

Federal officials can offer little relief.

Congress has largely delegated oversight of oil field spills to the states. EPA spokesman Richard Mylott said the agency investigates complaints about releases on federal lands, but refers complaints involving private property to state regulators.

The EPA handed the complaint about Brigham to an official with North Dakota’s Health Department, who said he had already spoken to the company.

“They said this was an isolated occurrence, this is not how they handle frac water and it would not happen again,” the official wrote to the EPA. “As far as we are concerned, this complaint is closed.”

Salting the Earth

Six years ago, a four-inch saltwater pipeline ruptured just outside Linda Monson’s property line, leaking about a million gallons of salty wastewater.

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.

After suing Zenergy Inc., 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.”

The company has paid a $70,000 fine and committed to cleaning the site, but the case shows how difficult the cleanup can be. When brine leaks into the ground, the sodium binds to the soil, displacing other minerals and inhibiting plants’ ability to absorb nutrients and water. Short of replacing the soil, the best option is to try to speed the natural flushing of the system, which can take decades.

Zenergy has tried both. According to a Department of Mineral Resources report, the company has spent more than $3 million hauling away dirt and pumping out contaminated groundwater — nearly 31 million gallons as of December 2010, the most recent data available.

But more than a dozen acres of Monson’s pasture remain fenced off and out of use. The cattle no longer drink from the creek, which was their main water source. Zenergy dug a well to replace it.

Shallow groundwater in the area remains thousands of times saltier than it should be and continues to leak into the stream and through the ground, contaminating new areas.

There’s little understanding of what long-term impacts hundreds of such releases could be having on western North Dakota’s land and water, said Micah Reuber.

Until last year, Reuber was the environmental contaminant specialist in North Dakota for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees wetlands and waterways.

Reuber quit after growing increasingly frustrated with the inadequate resources devoted to the position. Responding to oil field spills was supposed to be a small part of his job, but it came to consume all of his time.

“It didn’t seem like we were keeping pace with it at all,” he said. “It got to be demoralizing.”

Reuber said no agency, federal or state, has the money or staff to study the effects of drilling waste releases in North Dakota. The closest thing is a small ongoing federal study across the border in Montana, where scientists are investigating how decades of oil production have affected the underground water supply for the city of Poplar.

Joanna Thamke, a groundwater specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Montana, started mapping contamination from drilling 20 years ago. She estimated it had spread through about 12 square miles of the aquifer, which is the only source of drinking water in the area. Over the years, brine had leaked through old well bores, buried waste pits and aging tanks and pipes.

In the Poplar study and others, Thamke has found that plumes of contaminated groundwater can take decades to dissipate and sometimes move to new areas.

“What we found is the plumes, after two decades, have not gone away,” she said. “They’ve spread out.”

Poplar’s water supply is currently safe to drink, but the EPA has said it will become too salty as the contamination spreads. In March, the agency ordered three oil companies to treat the water or to find another source.

North Dakota officials are quick to point out that oversight and regulations are stronger today than they were when drilling began in the area in the 1950s. One significant difference is that waste pits, where oil companies store and dispose of the rock and debris produced during drilling, are now lined with plastic to prevent leaching into the ground.

New rules, effective April 1, require drillers in North Dakota to divert liquid waste to tanks instead of pits. Until now, drillers could store the liquid in pits for up to a year before pumping it out in order to bury the solids on site. The rule would prevent a repeat of the spring of 2011, when record snowmelt and flooding caused dozens of pits to overflow their banks.

But Reuber worries that the industry and regulators are repeating past mistakes. Not long before he left the Fish and Wildlife Service, he found a set of old slides showing waste pits and spills from decades ago.

“They looked almost exactly like photos I had taken,” he said. “There’s a spill into a creek bottom in the Badlands and it was sitting there with no one cleaning it up and containing it. And yeah, I got a photo like that, too.”

Keller has grown so dispirited by the changes brought by the boom that he is considering retiring after 30 years with the Army Corps and moving away from Williston. He runs a side business in scrap metal that would supplement his pension.

Still, determined to protect the area, he keeps alerting regulators whenever he spots evidence that oil companies have dumped or spilled waste.

Last July, when he saw signs of a spill near his home, Keller notified the Department of Mineral Resources and sent pictures showing a trail of dead grass to an acquaintance at the EPA regional office in Denver. The brown swath led from a well site into a creek.

If the spills continued, he warned the EPA in an email, they could “kill off the entire watershed.”

EPA officials said they spoke with Keller, but did not follow up on the incident beyond that. The state never responded, Keller said. The site remained untested and was never cleaned up.

“There was no restoration work whatsoever,” Keller said.North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources spokeswoman Alison Ritter submitted the following statement in response to this story yesterday (we have added editor’s notes where appropriate for accuracy).

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