ANTLER—What is the big deal about saltwater spills on the ground every now and then? It naturally comes from the earth, and it cannot hurt anything, right? Wrong. Once this type of water spills, it has an immediate, negative impact on the ground. Especially farm ground. Then the farmer, who has the surface rights to the land, is unable to produce a crop and that negatively affects his ability to earn a living and it also negatively impacts the value of the land.
Brine, or produced water, is a byproduct of oil and gas production. It consists of water from the geologic formation, injection water, oil and salts. Brine has a high salt concentration the ions of the salts negatively affect the site's soil and vegetation, impairing its ability to produce crops and forage. The goal of brine spill remediation is to remove or minimize salts in the soil.
Obviously, over the past decade, the amount of brine produced at oil sites has grown immensely. This is because the oil activity across the state has increased and the geological formations in North Dakota contain brine. The company must extract and dispose of the brine to produce oil successfully and efficiently. When oil companies are increasing activity, they produce more brine and when there is more brine on the move, then there is a naturally increased chance of spills occurring.
This entire situation has pitted the farmer against the oil company. The farmer needs his land preserved or remediated following a spill and the oil company must continue to move brine. Furthermore, when the price of oil is high, then a brine spill here and there and the cost of fixing it seems as though it is simply the cost of doing business for an energy company. Even though there have been steps taken by oil and gas regulatory agencies to hold oil companies accountable for mitigating spills, the damage is already done to spill sites from the past.
Daryl Peterson is a landowner and retired farmer who has spent several years trying to find a solution. Daryl has a passion for solving this problem and he wants to do it by collaborating with energy companies and state regulators. Not by fighting them. He feels that the best solution will come about only through cooperation of all parties. “I want to be cautious, but I want to be optimistic,” Daryl says regarding the delicacy required when bringing together the two most prominent industries in North Dakota – oil and ag.
An example of a spill site where an oil company tried to implement steps to amend the soil occurred near Daryl’s farm in Bottineau County. The company decided to excavate the surface and hired a local agronomy company to test soil nutrient levels. The results showed harmful levels many times more than the unharmed ground nearby, even 3 to 4 feet deep - the maximum soil depth of the testing. They removed 1 to 2 feet of topsoil and clay in about a quarter of an acre area and installed a small drain tile and a pump if needed. However, excavation did not remove a substantial portion of contaminated soil.
The excavation contractor was supposed to bring in a similar soil to what it removed, but instead brought blow sand from unworked fence-lines. The landowner wanted it hauled out and better soil brought in, but due to several different circumstances, that was not done.
About two years later, Daryl recalls walking the site and to his surprise the crop seemed as good as the background land productivity.
At a similar spill site nearby, there was a three-foot-deep excavation on Daryl’s land about a quarter of a mile east of the other spill location. At this location, the contractor did not remove important levels of contamination below three feet. Also at this site, regulators approved installation of clay cap and comparable topsoil. There was also a sump installed along with one drain tile run. The salt was back to the surface in less than two years, and subsequent soil testing proved the reclamation technique was not effective.
This is evidence that clay cap and heavy topsoil are susceptible to recontamination if drain tile planning does not include proper tile spacing and removal of water. What Daryl proposes is that heavy, highly contaminated soils need a structural change in the upper profile along with proper tile placement and utilization. “My plan is way cheaper than a ‘dig and haul’ approach,” he said.
All the above attempts at remediation show that a good recommendation would be using fence-line type sandy soils, along with organic matter and gypsum spread in appropriate quantities on the surface. Gypsum is a non-toxic mineral that is naturally occurring and contains elevated levels of calcium and sulfur. It is often sold commercially in a granular, powdered, or pellet form for use in agriculture. Gypsum is known for being a great option for breaking up heavily compacted soils, and it can help to promote healthy plant growth. Healthy plant growth is the goal for the farmer. Simply stated, healthy plant growth is the best thing for the soil.
The next process would be to use a deep ripper to break up very tight salt impacted soil and create vertical sand stringers to lessen the natural rise of salt in the soil profile. Finally, a follow up layer of light soil, organic matter and gypsum, if needed, would create a great seedbed for good germination and initial root growth. This method could be cost effective and yield quicker results than current remediation strategies. Soils that are not highly contaminated may not require drain tile. This method could be highly effective in bringing back productivity to previously reclaimed oil well access roads and old well sites.
Daryl’s goal is to form a cohesive partnership between state and federal regulators, energy companies, landowners, soil scientists, and agronomists to evaluate this approach to bring productivity back to brine damaged lands. Daryl acknowledges that oil and gas success in our state is an important thing for the economy and working in conjunction with energy companies and research entities is key, “We have to understand how we got here and that it is an opportunity for research,” he said.
We know that oil and agriculture depend on each other in North Dakota. One cannot be successful without the other. Both industries can benefit from Daryl’s “cautious but optimistic approach.”