ANTLER - Saltwater has contaminated numerous acres of agricultural land in Bottineau County. The sources of the saltwater are storage pits and pipelines serving oil wells in the area.
On Monday a group of concerned citizens, farmers and professionals toured several contaminated oil field sites. One of the first stops was at a location known as the Large Renville Township pipeline break. About 30 acres of land were affected, some of them still containing contaminated water up to four times saltier than what is found in the ocean.
"This is a huge disaster, huge disaster," said Fintan Dooley, Milwaukee, Wisc. "These farmers up here have signed a document demanding the governor do an investigation of this thing."
An aerial photograph taken earlier this year is compared to a saltwater spill site in Bottineau County. A tour of several saltwater-contaminated sites was conducted Monday.
Dooley is an attorney and former North Dakota resident. He is seeking to obtain an accounting of how many Bottineau County acres have been destroyed by saltwater. A legal action against the state is a possibility.
"I think this is a breach of trust. I think we deserve an audit," said Dooley. "This whole situation is quite ridiculous. The care that this thing has been given is minuscule."
The Large Renville spill site was discovered in November of 2011. A broken pipeline has been identified as the source of the saltwater spill. Locals say the leak was to be expected because of rocks that were dumped along with fill used to cover the pipeline.
Not far away, in the North Hass Field, excavation and soil removal was underway at the Mike Artz farm. Again, a fractured pipeline had released an unknown but substantial amount of saltwater.
"There was an attitude that this was a very small spill. Nothing happened until we announced this tour and then the work began," said Dooley. "They are hauling huge quantities of soil and hauling it to a hazardous waste site."
The State Health Department estimated the spill to be 600 to 700 barrels of saltwater. Others say it is substantially more.
"There's usually sort of an immediate perception for the gullible and then a more accurate number follows," said Dooley.
Samples of barley taken from a field near the site showed severely stunted growth, an indicator of plants utilizing saltwater.
Donny Nelson, Keene, was one of the organizers of Monday's tour. He says similar and serious cropland damages from oil field saltwater are evident all across North Dakota's northern counties from Bottineau to the Montana border.
"With the scale of the Bakken development in our area, if this is what happens in 50 years, it will be unimaginable," said Nelson. "We ask that trustees o their duty and honestly account for the destruction of public trust properties. Some of the lands can be remediated. The bad news is that some lands have been sacrificed."
According to Nelson, a number of spills near his McKenzie County home have been remediated three or four times.
"From what I've seen over a couple generations, about the only way to fix it is to dig it out and put new soil in," said Nelson.
Estimates are that an average accumulation of salt per oil well site is 250 tons. When spills occur from overflow of evaporation pits or broken pipelines, nearby soil can become so infected with salt deposits that virtually nothing will grow. That situation was evident at a location called the "rock pile" where saltwater overflow from a nearby oil site has adversely affected an agricultural field.
"Nothing grows on top of that and probably on 30 to 40 feet on either side," explained Galen Peterson, Maxbass, while pointing to an affected area in a field. "Salt is probably down 10 feet in the soil and will eventually take the whole area. This oilfield is nasty, practically every well that is here. We need to stop the damage."
"North Dakota is going to lose a lot of land if the best practices are done with development, so we don't need to lose any more land with this type of careless activity," said a tour participant who requested anonymity.
One of the largest locations of salted lands visited Monday was 150 acres in the Wayne Field. According to a spokesman, the property owner has repeatedly requested to have the site cleaned up but nothing has been done. Several attempts at planting a crop on the contaminated land failed. The crop germinated and came out of the ground but failed to mature. Too much salt in the soil was cited as the reason why.
Monday's tour organizers say it is time for the State of North Dakota to take a much closer look at the adverse affects of oil development, particularly when it comes to spills of saltwater which they maintain is a far more serious concern than an oil spill.
"There are no significant biological remedies to salt," said Dooley.
Additional informational sessions on "salted" lands are scheduled in the coming days at Killdeer, Keene and Dickinson.