U.S. Water News Online
BISMARCK, N.D. — Salty oil field wastewater is being sprayed again on North Dakota roads as a deicer and environmental groups want it stopped.
State transportation officials haven't ruled out using the water but the city of Dickinson found its choices limited.
With road salt prices on the rise, cities saddled with shrinking budgets and the never-ending need to keep roads ice-free, money is a big reason for using the wastewater. It costs Dickinson nothing to get it from oil companies, which otherwise would have to pay to dispose of it.
“The reason we went back to it is because it's a cost savings,” said Ken Kussy, the city's street maintenance manager. “We're saving thousands and thousands of dollars.”
Kussy said tests on three wells where the water is obtained found it no more toxic than commercial road salt, and the city resumed using it in February after the $8,000 budget for deicer evaporated early in winter.
But environmentalists question the practice.
“The long and short of it is that we don't think it's legal,” said Cindy Klein, a spokeswoman for the Dickinson-based Dakota Resource Council, an environmental and landowner group.
Oil well wastewater is obtained from three wells in the state's oil patch and is up to 10 times saltier than seawater.
The state Health Department's environmental health section approved an application for the city of Dickinson and its contractor to apply the briny water to roads, and the city's been using what's left over from oil production for more than two months.
“Compared with commercial-grade products, what we saw didn't rise to a level of concern,” said Dave Glatt, director of the environmental health section.
State transportation workers have been spreading the oil well wastewater to melt ice and snow on roads — mostly in the western part of the state — since 1963. It stopped in February 2007 after The Associated Press reported on the practice. Some health officials had never heard of it before then.
The Health Department then conducted studies, which found that the wastewater did not harm water or vegetation along roadsides.
The department issued guidelines in November that allow state, county or city governments to use oil wastewater on roads if it is comparable to commercial road salt. It's up to the various agencies to test the wastewater through a private lab, and it's up to the health department to monitor the results, Glatt said.
The Dakota Resource Council, along with the Sierra Club and the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, have questioned the thoroughness of the state's study and believe the new guidelines are inadequate.
“I think a lot of unanswered questions remain about the road-spreading of brines,” said Brad Klein, an attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “We do think the state is on weak legal ground and there are potential Clean Water Act violations.”
The state's guidelines “place too much reliance on self-regulation ... and don't project clear standards to prevent environmental impact,” Klein said. “We are concerned about this, and at the very least, the public should know about it.”
Dickinson Mayor Dennis Johnson said he was unaware that the city had resumed using the briny wastewater to deice roads. “From the condition of ice on the streets, it doesn't appear like we're putting down much of anything, except maybe some sand,” he said.
Kussy said it's virtually impossible to tell the difference between oil well wastewater and commercial road salt.
“What a way to run a railroad,” said Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club. “It's a sad commentary that the perceived financial savings outweigh public health and the environment.”
Schafer said the Sierra Club could seek legal action against the state to stop the practice.
“What they appear to be saying is, “Sue us and we'll deal with it then,”' he said. “There is certainly a possibility that we will pursue this because we view it as a threat to public health and the environment.”
The state Transportation Department is not using the briny wastewater but has not ruled it out. “We will continue to evaluate it depending on the cost” of commercial road salt, said Billie Jo Lorius, a spokeswoman.
The price of road salt has doubled since 2003, to about $67 a ton over the winter, Lorius said. The state has been using a mixture of sugar beet pulp with commercial salt brine.
That leaves Dickinson in a tough position.
“There are environmental concerns with all these deicers, even the commercial ones,” Kussy said. “We all want something environmentally safe, but not using any product and having people killed on the roads is not going to work, either.
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