New disposal rules could mean less oil waste buried in North Dakota's landscape

2011-09-17T23:35:00Z New disposal rules could mean less oil waste buried in North Dakota's landscapeBy LAUREN DONOVAN Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune
September 17, 2011 11:35 pm  • 

TIOGA - Brenda and Richard Jorgenson have a long list of reasons why they dislike and fear the reserve pit from an oil well buried on their land, located a half-mile from their house.

They say it reeked of chemicals when it was being filled with diesel-saturated mud, rock cuttings and fluids left over from drilling last year.

It might be out of sight since it was covered this summer, but it's not out of mind.

It's 15 feet above a shallow drinking water source and upland of a waterfowl production area. The Jorgensons don't know exactly what's in it because it's never been tested, though a sample was taken after Brenda Jorgenson called everyone from the governor's office to state inspectors.

"What if there are problems? The company is bonded, but if you want to prove it's from the pit, you need to know what's in there," Brenda Jorgenson said. The sample is still over at the Oil and Gas Division's regional office in Williston. An analysis would cost her $2,500, she's told.

The pit, along with dozens of others, overflowed this spring from heavy snowmelt - in this case, toward a woody ravine that drains into the valley and eventually into the White Earth River. It's not known how far the residue spread.

The couple live northeast of Tioga in an attractive, walk-out home overlooking the White Earth Valley, a scenic treasure that's being pressured by oil development.

While property owners can't stop an oil well being drilled on their land, the Jorgensons hoped to at least prevent the oil waste from being buried there forever. They were offered $6,500 for five acres of their flax field where the well and pit were developed, but have never signed a surface use agreement or taken the money.

Richard Jorgenson said even though they got the pit on their land anyway, he didn't like the math.

"They want to give us $6,500 to tie up land that wasn't for sale?" he asked.

The reserve pits are a side effect of oil drilling. In theory, there's one for every oil well in North Dakota, a number that now exceeds 18,000, though about 5,500 are currently producing oil.

Though pit practices have changed, it still amounts to many thousands of small landfills the size of a swimming pool scattered throughout the oil zone.

The clay- or geofabric-lined pits hold everything that goes down the hole and comes back up during drilling. That's somewhere in the range of 650 tons of solid waste and 200 barrels of liquid waste for each well drilled, now that Bakken wells are drilled two miles deep and two more miles laterally.

That's about half of the picture, if estimates that there will be as many as 15,000 more wells drilled in North Dakota over the next decade or so hold up.

State rules require liquids to be pumped off and taken to disposal wells before the pit is covered over, sometime within a year of being opened.

But change is in store.

North Dakota oil and gas regulators are gearing up to make a significant change in what can go into those reserve pits. They will take a new set of proposed rules to the State Industrial Commission when it meets Tuesday.

If the commission approves the new rules, a public hearing will be held Nov. 1 and the rules would start to be implemented in April, said Bruce Hicks, assistant director of the state's Oil and Gas Division of the Department of Mineral Resources.

The new rules will likely require that a semi-closed loop system is used for every well drilled. The systems separate liquids and drilling mud right at the rig for disposal or recycling, so they are never run into the reserve pit and are never souped in with the rock cuttings.

Hicks said the semi-closed systems are already required for multiple well sites, where companies use one pad to drill more than one well.

While Hicks said he won't comment on the proposed rules before they're approved, it's likely semi-closed loop systems will be required for single wells, by far the most common configuration in the oil zone. Oil wells would still have associated pits, but only for dry cuttings - the sandstone and shale bored through by the drill bit - which are typically stabilized with coal fly ash before being covered over.

"We're trying to eliminate or reduce the fluids from being in the pit so it's not a matter of getting the fluids out. The less we bury, the better for the environment," Hicks said.

Industry going there already

Cody VanderBusch, Oil and Gas reclamation specialist, said he estimates half the new wells drilled are on the semi-closed system, even without the rule in place.

"It's easier to reclaim. There's less mess and the companies like it. They can cover it up and drive over it without worrying about backing into it," VanderBusch said.

Glenn Cox, drilling manager for Continental Resources, said his company and others are moving toward the semi-closed systems for all wells - single and multiple.

Cox said building reserve pits to handle runoff from a major snowmelt event isn't always sufficient.

"That volume of snowmelt caught up to us," he said. Besides the potential for overflow, the pits just look bad to the public.

"This is being more proactive with public perception," he said.

He said a semi-closed system doesn't add "a huge" amount to the cost of drilling a well, though it requires more manpower. But Cox said he's "old school" about the traditional reserve pit.

"If they're properly managed, there's no concern with reserve pits. But it's easy to sit here and say that today" in light of all the new wells coming on, Cox said.

In a few cases, his company has drilled wells using a completely closed loop system, meaning that all fluids and all solids were hauled off for disposal. In those cases - usually because of high groundwater - there's no acceptable site to build a reserve pit.

When drillers haul solids from a well location, there are only three regional solid waste disposal sites in the oil zone: two in the Williston vicinity, and Prairie Disposal, south of the Jorgensons' place and Tioga.

Cox said he doesn't think companies should be required to haul all their rock cuttings to a regional location and thinks the dry cuttings pits, as they're called, at individual well sites are more logical.

"I don't see the sense of concentrating it all at one site," he said.

Buried waste on the increase

Prairie Disposal is a family-owned business, started in 1983 by Darwin and Jean Krenz on their property overlooking Lake Sakakawea, between New Town and Tioga.

Today, their sons, Brad and Courtney Krenz, run the disposal business for oil field waste tonnage that will shatter all company records this year.

In any month this year, they're handling more oil field waste than in all of 2008, said Courtney Krenz.

The Krenzes are constructing a new landfill at Prairie Disposal, enough to contain 190,000 tons.

"We'll fill this in two years, more than in our whole history," Courtney Krenz said. Another, similar pit is already construction.

The brothers are proud of their operation and say they went above and beyond state Health Department regulations in lining the new pit with a 60-mill plastic that contains a plastic leaching grid so any fluids, rain or snowmelt can drain into a sump and holding pond system.

Courtney Krenz said he'd like to see a day when all reserve pits - even if they're for dry cuttings only - are a thing of the past.

"As a North Dakota landowner, I don't like to see 20,000 waste dumps out there. Here, it's safe and it's engineered. When it's out there, it's buried and forgotten," he said.

They estimate if well operators buried all their solids at a landfill at the rate of around $80 a ton, the cost would amount to about $175,000 per well, trucking included. That's more expensive - but not hugely so - than opening, lining and covering an on-site pit, they said.

The Krenzes brought in another service to their disposal site this spring to deal with oil waste products.

Disposal innovations

Newalta, a Canadian company that deals with tar sand waste, set up a centrifuge system at the Prairie Disposal landfill to handle so-called "dirty water" from drilling operations. Newalta project manager Sean Morton said it's the only one like it in the oil zone.

Dirty water, either from drilling fluids or pumped from reserve pits, contains too many solids and would plug the workings of a typical disposal well, so it gets refused for well disposal. The Newalta process separates the sludge into water, solids and oil so each byproduct can be handled separately. The solids coming from the centrifuge and dropping off the conveyor feel like smooth oily clay.

Newalta is in operation 24/7, and the Krenzes say it's in such high demand they're planning to double the capacity of the equipment.

The 10 trucks waiting in line to unload are visible proof of that demand. One driver, Charles Stedgell, drove three hours with a load of dirty water, or sludge, from a well near Killdeer.

He arrived at 11:30 p.m. and was still in line waiting to unload at 5 p.m. the next day. He said he slept and checked over his truck to pass the time.

Morton, the Newalta project leader, finally drove into Tioga for 35 hamburgers and 12 pounds of French fries to feed the truckers.

"We'll be here permanently," Morton said of his company's role in oil field waste handling, as he handed out to-go boxes to the male and one female truck drivers.

The Krenzes are applying for a well disposal permit for wastewater to become a one-stop shop for oil solids and liquids, including the liquid separated out by the Newalta process.

New disposal standards coming

Scott Radig directs the waste disposal permit programs for the state Health Department, including the one for Prairie Disposal.

State records show that in 2010, a year when 862 new wells were drilled, some 90,000 tons of solid waste were disposed of at the three solid waste sites in the oil zone, compared to

4,000 tons a decade ago. Nearly 2,000 new wells were expected to be drilled this year.

Radig said some companies want their solids off site and others haul it off because of shallow groundwater.

"So many more are taking it to the landfill rather than leaving it in pits," he said.

In the past, disposal operators composted the oil field waste, most often oil-saturated soils or tank sludge, before burying it in clay pits.

Now, there's too much waste coming in too fast to compost, and Radig said plastic-lined pits like at Prairie Disposal's new pit will become a disposal standard.

The Jorgensons said they tried, to no avail, to convince the oil company to haul the oil waste away from the well site rather than leave it in a pit on their land.

Richard Jorgenson said he'd like to see all waste from all oil wells get buried in mega pits, perhaps in old coal spoils, rather than in thousands of isolated pits throughout the West.

He said one oil official told him that if the pit on his land leaks, it won't be (Jorgenson's) problem since it might not happen for another 40 years.

"What kind of statement is that? Our kids and our grandchildren will be here," he said.

(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 220-5511 or


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(6) Comments

  1. BabyT
    Report Abuse
    BabyT - September 19, 2011 7:20 pm
    Reason said: "They were growing flax on the land. Learn to read. Flax is a valuable crop, that would probably exceed the $6,500 for the few acres taken out of production, over time."

    sorry, missed that part... (or didn't care, one of the two) The point of the article still stands, my comment was that it wasn't mineral rights, it was surface rights. HUGE difference, and there is no comparison between them.
  2. Reason
    Report Abuse
    Reason - September 19, 2011 3:54 pm
    smokingcrater said: "There is no oil on the surface. That is $1300/acre for SURFACE RIGHTS for what is probably questionable grazing land. Not a bad price and probably double what comparable sales have gone for."

    They were growing flax on the land. Learn to read. Flax is a valuable crop, that would probably exceed the $6,500 for the few acres taken out of production, over time.
  3. gtg454
    Report Abuse
    gtg454 - September 19, 2011 3:16 pm
    HanpaSunka said: "you cannot drink or eat oil or the leftovers from producing it".

  4. smokingcrater
    Report Abuse
    smokingcrater - September 19, 2011 2:51 pm
    HanpaSunka said: "$6500 for oil land? That's producing thousands & thousands of dollars of oil? "

    There is no oil on the surface. That is $1300/acre for SURFACE RIGHTS for what is probably questionable grazing land. Not a bad price and probably double what comparable sales have gone for.
  5. HanpaSunka
    Report Abuse
    HanpaSunka - September 19, 2011 10:54 am
    $6500 for oil land? That's producing thousands & thousands of dollars of oil? How out of whack is that?? But the environmental risk is the real concern - you cannot drink or eat oil or the leftovers from producing it. We only get ONE earth to live on. And the White Earth valley is a treasure in a land of treasures. It is only Responsible to find out what's in that pit & to do everything possible to protect our environment from toxins.
  6. RockNDBakken
    Report Abuse
    RockNDBakken - September 18, 2011 9:36 pm
    Ms. Donovan failed to mention if the oil well in the background is producing oil royalty for the Jorgensons. Do they own minerals? Did they lease their minerals? The picture of the disposal area looks like it's pasture. There is NO picture of the pit on Jorgensons land. This article is quite incomplete and leaves out pertinent facts that should be considered to evaluate her opinions expressed in the article.
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