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salt-contamination Historical Issues

In the mid-to late 50s, the North Dakota oil industry entrepreneurs drilled commercially producing conventional wells. For nearly 25 years, North Dakota entrepreneurs, with the consent of North Dakota's leaders, ignored  the warnings of the American Petroleum Institute.They utilized reserve pits, essentially convenient on site dump grounds. The earliest waste pits were placed wherever was convenient. The pits are sometimes called evaporation pits.They were not.They were percolation pits. Waste dumped in them, byproducts of oil production, chiefly brines, also called saltwater, also called produced water, also called return flows, along with chemicals, have polluted thousands of acres of North Dakota farmland.

In the late 70s, North Dakota regulators required entrepreneurs to utilize pit liners. Hydrologist, Jon Reiten of the Montana School of Mines, has  much to say about pits. He declared that it was once a widespread practice to slash the pit liners when the well was retired and the site was reclaimed. The intent of the slash was to create a firm cover over the old reserve pit so that farmers would not get stuck driving machinery across it. The result was what Reiten called "spider webbing."  The liquid salt flowed out of the limed pit  just as was intended. The old pit ground became firm and passable by the heaviest machinery. The salt poison, however, flowed in a spider web fashon both above and below the surface of the earth sometimes reappearing as much as a mile away and there killing everything.

In North Dakota, the most widespread salt contaminated farm and ranchlands are those that are flat and wet. Eight northern tier counties in North Dakota have widespread pollution of farmlands. In Bottineau County well spacing allowed as many as 16 wells per section. That is four wells per quarter, one well per 40 acres, one pit each or one pit per 80 acres. Reiten calculated that each pit may contain 250 tons of salt, or  expressed as a pile of  livestoch salt  blocks, a pile 25 feet by 25 feet by 18 feet tall. These pit salts leach both laterally and vertically. The leachate salt is called a plume. Pits have overlapping plumes which substantially destroy the farm or ranchland’s productivity, especially during wet and cool periods of time.

The key documents are attached and I provided a short explanation of each document.

  1. 1932 API Committee on Disposal of Production Wastes, a report by V. L. Martin advising all members about the hazards of disposal of wastes generated during production of oil.
  2. The American petroleum Institute is the is the most respected and comprehensive national trade association representing all aspects of America’s oil and natural gas industry.
  3. As early as 1932, Martin warned the membership that disposal of salt water into earthen ponds was, in fact, a release of the same contamination into watersheds. The result was poisoned waterways and damaged farmlands. His key warning is shown here below on page 7.
  4. On page 7 “We are only ‘kidding’ ourselves when we think we can dispose of salt water by solar evaporation from earthen ponds…what we have attributed to evaporation was due to seepage…eventually such seepage might either follow a impervious stratum to the surface where it may effect vegetation or may find its way to fresh water sources, either surface or sub surface and in such quantities as to be objectionable. The theory that seepage tends to filter out the objectionable salt has been thoroughly disproven." (Schmidt and Divine in Bureau of Mine Bulletins, R.I. 2945.)
  5. Second attachment is my analysis of other key points in V. L. Martin's 1932 paper. He admits several things which proved to be admissions against interest in Louisiana litigation and are likely to prove to be important in future legislation. In the event the state does not count the acres of salt damaged land, then the API admissions in the 1932 document will prove to be important in salted lands litigation in North Dakota. A few of the points are:
    • Serious consequences always attend waste disposal;
    • In a wet setting disposal might work during seasons of high water flows because dilution can, in fact, be the solution;
    • He predicts the most aggravating problems will not be resolved until those most affected by waste oil and saline waters force a solution;
    • He predicts wastewater will someday be a revenue producing product;
    • Industry has a moral responsibility to incorporate waste management into the oil production process; and 
    • Depending on the character of the subsoil claims some ions such as sodium render clay impervious to the infiltration of water but calcium and magnesium have the opposite effect.
  6. The third attachment was written by Len J. Gawel, a PhD whose ideas are outdated. There is better science. The North Dakota Industrial Commission still relies upon the document. In short, the deficiencies are based on unsupportable optimism that ignores leaching of salt and a failure to understand the quantity of salt left behind in the conventional oilfield. Each old pit, on average, contains 250 tons of salt. More recent work by Austin Arabie will show that placement of a web of tiles and collection wells is the better approach. Pumping brines from the collection wells and plunging that salt into the earth is the only permanent remedy.

  7. Ed Murphy reserve pit and brine studies done in the mid 1980's is the fundamental paper for salt contamination of flat and wet productive land in North Dakota. He warns that reserve pits will leach both laterally and vertically especially when wet conditions prevail. The proper remedy to prevent spreading is placement of a dome over the pit and curtain the pit to arrest its leachate.Figure 7 from leachate study of Murphy is an excellent but slightly dated illustration of leaching of salt both laterally and vertically.

  8. Billingsley Oklahoma contamination shows a more sophisticated illustration. There are new insights being developed all the time about movement of contamination plumes. There is much to be learned and saved by testing and modeling. Agricultural consultant Marvin Nelson has made powerful presentations at public hearings and explained the predicament of spreading salt plumes. He has done an admirable job of collecting appropriate legal research. Each zone of contamination has variables depending upon the relief profile of the earth, the quantity of waters flowing or not, and soil types.

  9. In 2014 Ed Murphy's 1980 research and warning became to focal point of a hearing on salted lands. His warnings proved to be true. 
  10. USGS researcher's Preston and Reiten working in North East Montana have confirmed widespread pollution of farm and ranch wells, livestock ponds, surface waters, shallow aquifers, streams and rivers.
  11. Cost of pit remediation.
  12. The appendix i Marvin E Nelson, discloses his testimony given to legislators at the April 8, 2014 hearing convened by the Energy Development and Transportation Committee in Minot, North Dakota. Ag-consultant Nelson adressed the problem of decommissioning of unproductive wells. For instance, one well in southwest Bottineau county has been pumped for three months without production of any oil. It is pumped "to hold the well by production."