Oil pit over town's drinking water shut down

2014-01-02T06:00:00Z Oil pit over town's drinking water shut downBy LAUREN DONOVAN | Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune

Scott Meiers wasn’t happy with a pit for oil drill cuttings above a slough where his cows drink.

As it turned out, the waste pit was shut down because it’s above groundwater the city of Ross drinks.

The oil drilling company, Oasis, was ordered to stop using the pit Dec. 12 until the State Health Department and the Department of Mineral Resources get together on whether it can stay there, or whether it should be moved altogether.

“This is a huge pit. The reason I noticed it is because it’s about the size of a football field,” Meiers said.

The pit is so big because it’s a super drilling pit, where the company could bury thousands of tons of cuttings from the six permitted wells and up to 11 wells that would be allowed on the 1,280-acre spacing unit.

The pit isn’t on his land so Meiers said he wouldn’t have a leg to stand on as far as his own cattle were concerned. Then, an official from the city of Ross realized the pit is in the town’s Wellhead Protection zone. The zones are set apart to protect drinking water from contamination.

State officials moved quickly to shut down the pit and assess the situation.

To Mountrail County, the pit is an example of state regulators dropping the ball.

It also has officials there asking how pits that scale are permitted in a county that recently declared a six-month moratorium on special oil field waste landfills.

“What concerns me most is the breakdown of communication. This (Wellhead Protection location) is an absolute no-no,” said Mountrail County Commissioner David Hynek.

He blames the Industrial Commission because the cutting pit permits fall within its jurisdiction.

The Industrial Commission has turned the permit authority over to Department of Mineral Resources director Lynn Helms.

Spokesman Alison Ritter said the Oasis pit was originally approved for a different location on the spacing unit, but the company found a high water table there.

A field inspector allowed the move, but didn’t have the right mapping access to see that the site was in Ross's Wellhead Protection zone.

Ritter said field inspectors now have that map layer on their technology so the mistake should never be repeated.

What will be repeated are more permits for cutting pits, never mind the county’s moratorium.

That’s because there are two waste disposal options for oil companies.

The first is the on-site pits, like Oasis’, near the wells. These are approved by Helms without county zoning, or regulation by the state Health Department.

This one was used for less than a day before it was shut down, Ritter said.

The pits have to be lined, clay compacted and covered, but no monitoring is required when they’re closed up. Companies can only use the pits for dry drilling material, usually hardening it with flyash.

Nor is there a limit to size, except that waste has to come from wells inside the spacing unit.

The second option is special waste landfills, designed for enormous quantities of material from any oil well location.

These require heavy duty liners, leachate systems to collect water and long-term monitoring for decades. These are regulated by the state Health Department. Local zoning approval also is required.

Mountrail County recently declared its six-month moratorium on special oil field waste permits after two companies wanted to build mammoth waste landfills a half-mile apart.

Because the Oasis pit and others like it don’t require local zoning or input, the county wasn’t even aware of its existence until Meiers and the city of Ross brought it to their attention.

Hynek said oil companies follow rules for building waste pits, but he wonders about the potential for scale.

“If they had 30 to 40 wells and the production company wants to put that into one pit, I think they could do so, versus a special waste landfill,” Hynek said. “They are two different animals. The special waste landfills, when they’re closed, have to be monitored with monitoring wells for 30 years. The dry cutting pits, they can walk away from them,” Hynek said.

The county plans to talk with Helms about the situation.

“Is he deliberately or inadvertently bypassing the requirements for special waste landfills?” Hynek said he wants to know.

Meiers, the landowner, said he has real concerns about oilfield waste.

“We’re asking for more control. It’s a little frustrating because we’re not being protected by the people who are supposed to be protecting us,” Meiers said.

Scott Radig, who directs waste management for the Department of Health, said a special oil field waste landfill would not be allowed in the Ross’ Wellhead Protection zone under his department’s rules.

He said Oasis, the city of Ross and Helms’ department did ask how to handle the Oasis pit. Before making any recommendations he’ll look at soil borings to see if the location is permeable to the groundwater

Radig said there is no limit to how large a cuttings pit could be before it’s a special waste landfill by another name. The only caveat is that all cuttings from a spacing unit stay within that spacing unit.

But as the traditional spacing unit, the legal boundary for a well operation, grows, so potentially could the cutting pits.

Spacing units of four sections with up to as many as 22 wells are not uncommon. Last year, the Industrial Commission approved a 30,000-acre spacing unit around the Little Missouri State Park in northern Dunn County.

Ritter said most oil companies bury their waste on location and the number of waste pits generally lines up with the number of drilling pads. In the case of Corral Creek, that’s 12 pads for 60 wells, so far, she said.

She said the department hasn’t set a maximum on how large on-site pits can be.

“At this time, there’s no discussion about that,” she said.

Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.

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