NEW TOWN -- Even with one-fifth of the state’s oil production and five rigs currently drilling, some members of the Three Affiliated Tribes feel that environmental justice is still hard to come by.
About 40 people attended a meeting Wednesday in New Town to hear more details of a Duke University study that studied saltwater spill sites, including one on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, the largest anywhere in North Dakota. It found persistent contamination of metals and salts and radioactive levels higher than the original spill material, even years later.
When it was released three weeks ago, the published and peer-reviewed study was criticized by the State Health Department for not looking at remediated sites when it analyzed soils and water for contamination. The study mapped nearly 4,000 spills totaling hundreds of thousands of barrels of liquid since 2007 and analyzed four representative sites, isolating chemical tracers so it could track where the contamination moved. Toxic Bakken saltwater – with the highest salinity and ammonia of any shale formation in the country, the study found, is produced at the rate of one barrel to a barrel of oil from wells.
Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality and study author disagreed with the criticism. He said he and his team did look at two remediated sites in the Bakken and didn’t find evidence of improvement, only more of the persistent contamination of high salts, ammonia and other chemicals far higher than normal thresholds.
“Why didn’t we go to the state? There was no need to; we’re not Russia,” Vengosh said. “Why is the department trying to protect the industry? Two of those sites are being remediated and they are showing a high level of contamination.”
The New Town meeting was sponsored by P.O.W.E.R., an affiliate of the Dakota Resource Council. Lisa DeVille, of Mandaree, helped organize Vengosh’s visit. She said the group is not opposed to oil development, but said it’s difficult to get any action because of the mix of local, tribal and federal regulators on the reservation. “There is a right way to do this. The study has proven the contamination of our soil. It’s not even been remediated -- I don’t think it can be,” she said. “There is no environmental justice.”
At a 1 million-gallon saltwater spill site on the reservation -- the Bear Den spill of 2014 -- Vengosh said his researchers found radioactivity eight times the background level down in the draw where the spill water collected, two years later, leading him to believe radioactivity concentrates as it moves through the soil.
“The retention of radioactivity in spill soils generates a radioactive legacy for thousands of years,” he concluded.
Joletta Bird Bear, of Mandaree, said many reservation oil wells are located along and under the lake and river system and because of that, the community water should be tested periodically. “With monitoring, we’re way behind here in North Dakota,” she said.
Vengosh said it’s his view that North Dakota’s remediation practice of flushing spill sites can actually increase contamination because more water increases absorption of salts and metals in the soils. “Dilution is not the solution _ that’s just spreading it out over a much larger area. The soil should be removed to a safe site before it migrates,” he said.
Answering to the audience, Vengosh said he doesn’t believe there’s an immediate human health risk, but said typical water testing for biological constituents is much different than testing for toxic contamination. “They should evaluate drinking water downstream from these spills and I don’t think it’s been done,” he said. He also warned that wildlife could be impacted and presents a secondary impact to humans through hunting and consumption.
Zaysha Grinnell, 15, a New Town High School student, said she recently formed the Modern Day Warriors Youth Group that marched 75 strong against two oil pipelines coming across Lake Sakakawea that splits the reservation.
“I’m worried. This is my home. It’s where I come from. I’m here just so we know what we’re talking about,” Grinnell said.
Vengosh said North Dakota is ripe for more study in the area of remediation and his team will return this summer for more work, looking to see if it can find contamination specifically from fracking chemicals, as opposed to the production brine. “I was stunned that I was coming here and this was being done for the first time,” he said.
DeVille said the meeting with Vengosh was intended to educate and enlighten people, not to do away with oil production.
Vengosh agreed and said it can be done in a safe way. “Protection of the environment and human health should be part of it,” he said.