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Tour highlights lands damaged by saltwater

Photo by Mike Nowatzki / Forum News Service Attorney Bill Bontrager of Tucson, Ariz., talks about cleanup efforts at the site of the Renville Township pipeline leak during a tour Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, of saltwater-damaged lands in rural Bottineau County, N.D. The leak discovered in 2011 severely affected about 23 acres of cropland and shallow ponds, according to a state Department of Health official.1 / 3
Photo by Mike Nowatzki / Forum News Service An exposed saltwater pipeline is seen Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, at the site of an August leak that spilled saltwater and some oil near Antler, N.D., in rural Bottineau County. Murex Petroleum is working with local and state authorities to restore the land2 / 3
Photo by Mike Nowatzki / Forum News Service Waterfowl swim in a wetland adjacent to the site of an August leak that spilled saltwater and some oil near Antler, N.D., in rural Bottineau County on Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Sandbags were laid to prevent water from the wetland from further filling the excavated spill site.3 / 3

ANTLER, N.D. - Walking across a field Monday as oil pumpjacks bobbed in the distance against the blue sky, farmer David Larson searched the ground for signs of the barley that was reportedly planted earlier this year.

But mostly what he found was foxtail barley, a "totally useless" plant that can tolerate the type of saltwater-tainted soil found in this field in northwestern Bottineau County, he said.

Larson, who farms near Willow City in the southeastern corner of the county, said oil production -- and its saltwater byproduct -- haven't reached his area yet. And after what he witnessed Monday during a tour of saltwater-damaged lands, he's not sure he wants it, despite the riches it could bring.

"We've got quite a few mineral rights, but if this is what happens to your property, what's the point?" he said.

Tour organizers Donny Nelson, a farmer and rancher in McKenzie County, and Fintan Dooley, a Milwaukee attorney whose mother's family homestead near Deering, invited several state officials to tour the area of north of Minot with hopes of shedding light on a problem they warn could someday plague the Bakken if saltwater pipelines aren't more closely monitored and regulated.

Those invited included Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agricultural Commissioner Doug Goehring, who make up the state's Industrial Commission, as well as State Engineer Todd Sando. Only Sando's office sent a representative, Eric Sikora, a hydrologist for the State Water Commission.

Sikora said the commission is "definitely aware of it and concerned about" the issue of saltwater spills. He said he planned to share information from the tour with the commission. Dalrymple chairs the Water Commission, and Goehring also is a member.

Dooley called it "preposterous" that no one from the governor's office participated in the tour. He called for a better accounting of saltwater spills, the effects of which can be felt for decades, he said.

"We've got to change this notion that oil is the problem. Saltwater is the problem," he said.

State Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla, an agricultural consultant, said sodium from saltwater dissolves in the soil, making it impermeable.

"So when it rains, everything drowns. And when it doesn't rain that week, everything dies from drought. And so it takes forever to change that soil," he said.

Nelson co-sponsored a bill last spring that would have required meters to detect leaks on saltwater gathering pipes. But it received no support and faced opposition from some who felt it would be too costly to the oil industry, he said.

"I don't know that it was ever really considered," he said. "Somehow, this stuff needs to be monitored."

Tour participants, including area farmers, pointed to one stop as a prime example of damage. About four miles south of the U.S-Canada border near Antler, a pipeline that runs from a well to a saltwater injection facility leaked, resulting in a spill of saltwater and some oil, said Kris Roberts, environmental geologist with the Department of Health Division of Water Quality. The spill was discovered in August.

Some of the spill got into a wetland, Roberts said. The total amount spilled is undetermined.

"There was a significant amount but we're not measuring it in thousands of barrels. It's probably in the very low three digits," Roberts said.

Don Kessel, senior vice president for Murex Petroleum, said the company accepts responsibility for the spill and is working with local and state authorities to restore the land. Dozens of truckloads of contaminated dirt have been hauled to the Sawyer landfill.

Wet weather in that low-lying area has slowed the cleanup process.

On Monday, a backhoe sat idle at the site. To the northeast, ducks swam in a wetland separated from the excavated area by sandbags to keep from the wetland from adding more water to the cleanup site.

Tour participant Craig Holden of Wilton used a portable refractometer to measure the water's salinity. Near the pipeline leak, the water had a salinity of 7 percent, he said, about twice the average found in seawater. The instrument has a margin of error of 1 to 2 percent, he said.

The salinity was even higher, 13 percent, at another stop on the tour, the site of a 2011 pipeline leak noticed by a farmer in Renville Township. That leak severely affected about 23 acres of cropland and shallow ponds, Roberts said.

Petro Harvester Operating Co. is responsible for the cleanup, Roberts said.

The Department of Health has issued a notice of violation to the company, Roberts said. The department is holding off on a final decision related to a penalty while the cleanup continues, he said.

Galen Peterson, who farms and serves as the township's clerk and treasurer, noted that the pumps designed to pump the saltwater into collection wells for disposal weren't running Monday.

"My concern is we're losing tax base because eventually these areas are going to be declared worthless," he said. "They're not productive."

Reporter Amy Dalrymple contributed to this report.

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