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Science & Environment

Hard To Clean Up Wastewater Spills From Oil Wells Into N.D. Stream

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In all the debates over oil drilling and transporting oil, there's one thing that everyone agrees on; accidents can happen. People in the industry say they take every precaution, and the risk is worth the gain. Critics say damage to the environment can be disastrous. N.D. has just seen its worst spill since an oil boom began in that state. It's not oil leaking but wastewater from drilling. Emily Guerin reports.

EMILY GUERIN, BYLINE: When oil comes out of the ground after fracking, a lot of water comes up with it. That water is really salty, as much as 13 times saltier than ocean water, and can contain chemicals, oil and radioactive material.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING THROUGH HOSE)

GUERIN: That's the sound of wastewater being sucked out of a truck before it's sent back underground into an injection well. Some companies use pipelines to carry that wastewater because it can be cheaper and less of a nuisance for neighbors. But when a pipeline breaks, the results can be catastrophic. Joanne Njos is walking along Blacktail Creek, a small stream that cuts through her farm just north of Williston, N.D. In early January, the pipeline company Meadowlark Midstream discovered that one of its pipelines had broken underground about a mile west of here, leaking nearly 3 million gallons of wastewater into Blacktail Creek. Njos looks down at the rusty colored water in the creek.

JOANNE NJOS: This is pure, pure salt. I mean, it's so bad you've got to brush your teeth afterwards. Try it.

GUERIN: OK, I'll try it. (Spitting out water) Yeah, it's really salty. John Morgan is a spokesman for Meadowlark Midstream. And he says the company takes wastewater spills very seriously.

JOHN MORGAN: We control to the best of our ability the environmental impact. And we're actively working to ensure containment and clean up the affected area.

GUERIN: But wastewater is notoriously tricky to clean up, harder even than oil. And the salt in it can sterilize the soil for decades. Dave Glatt is with the North Dakota Department of Health and oversees spill cleanup and enforcement. He says wastewater spills are his biggest concern.

DAVE GLATT: If we don't get a handle on this, if we don't have appropriate remediation technologies, we'll have a landscape that's kind of pockmarked with all these dead zones.

GUERIN: According to state data, between 2004 and 2013, the spill rate per well more than doubled. Last year, the state passed rules requiring companies to verify they installed pipelines correctly. But that didn't stop the most recent spill. Dave Glatt again.

GLATT: I can see where the public would say, who dropped the ball on this? How come our state government isn't protecting us?

GUERIN: It appears part of the issue is that the state doesn't have enough inspectors. And even if it did, companies are not required to monitor or inspect pipelines for leaks, although lawmakers are considering changing that. That's not just in N.D. Wastewater pipelines are virtually unregulated across the country. Back on the Njos's land, we drive back to the house. Joanne worries about the wildlife and grasses coming back from this spill. She loves that creek.

NJOS: Oh, in the spring when the water runs, I just stand outside. And you can hear that rushing water. The grandkids like to put little sticks and stuff in there to watch it just float away.

GUERIN: The last time this happened, it took years for the creek to come back to normal. And that spill was only a third of the size of this one. For NPR News, I'm Emily Guerin in Williston, N.D.

GREENE: Emily reports for Inside Energy, a journalism collaboration covering America's energy issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.