Blacktail Creek

Birds fly underneath an overpass at Blacktail Creek, site of the largest brine spill in North Dakota history last March. 

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of five stories about the Blacktail Creek brine spill and what is being done in the aftermath.

WILLISTON — When it was warmer, Naomi Njos and her grandmother liked to walk the Blacktail Creek together. It was an enjoyable pastime that used to be one part exercise, one part companionship and another part wondering at nature.

The latter has been disturbingly missing all summer, however, in the wake of the state’s largest brine spill in history, a spill that released some 3 million gallons of brine into the creek and surrounding area.

What Njos saw on her summer walks this year were the remains of the wildlife that was — dead turtles and crayfish, an empty pool where carp used to swim, empty beaver dams.

She watched anxiously as the cleanup continued throughout the summer, waiting for the wildlife to return, but winter arrived first.

Now she has to wonder what the spring holds when yet another brine spill has been released from the same system, near the same site. It’s an additional 7,854 gallons of brine to worry about, and just adds to all the questions she and others have about the spill.

Njos is a student in the Grenora School District. She and her classmates have taken on the Blacktail Creek spill as a project for the National Eco Challenge through scholastic magazine. Her questions and concerns have become central to the class project, not just for the Blacktail Creek spill that happened in their own backyard, but for the state’s rise in brine spills in general.

“It was the most relevant to us because it’s where we live,” said Monty Salsbury, one of Njos’ classmates. “I hope that we will see more animals there than there were before. I hope we will be able to fish there again. I hope all the wildlife will come back.”


A shared hope

The Grenora kids’ hope is one shared by the state’s Game and Fish Department.

Kent Luttschwager was among the dozens of regulators with boots on the ground in the very early days of the spill, even though it wasn’t necessarily inside the jurisdiction of North Dakota’s Fish and Game Department.

They were on scene because Fish and Game received some of the initial calls asking why the Blacktail Creek wasn’t freezing as it normally did, and realized it should be checked out right away, in case it was a brine spill.

Oil spills seem to get the most media attention. They are unsightly, and photos or videos of flopping birds look awful. Brine spills, however — even though the consist of mostly water — are far worse. Brine-contaminated earth might as well be a desert. Nothing will grow there. And getting the salt out of contaminated groundwater can take years. As it has for a spill near Alexander, N.D.

Given all that, Game and Fish took initiative to check out the reports, even though it wasn’t in their jurisdiction. Before they could make the report, however, the operator of the gathering system, Summit Midstream’s Meadlowark Midstream, had finally discovered the leak and announced it.

In the initial days following discovery of the spill, a small army of people converged on the spill site to assess the damage. Teams of these regulators have walked the banks of the Blacktail Creek and the Little Muddy into which it feeds, as well as the Missouri itself, collecting soil, water and many other samples to verify how far the spill reached, and how cleanup efforts are going.

The size of the spill even caught the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency, which began its own investigation. Steven Way, EPA’s feet on the ground at the time, explained the size of the spill meant a certain level of oil had likely been released.  “If it’s more than a million gallons, the rule of thumb is 1 percent of that is oil,” he explained.

That level of oil triggers a response by our region of the EPA, headquartered in Denver, to ensure that oil containment and recovery is completed as quickly and efficiently as possible.

North Dakota retained leadership on the site, however, to manage cleanup of the groundwater.

Onsite testing tracked contaminants to a point just before the confluence with the Missouri River. Regulators say efforts to block the spill from The Missouri River were ultimately successful. The Missouri feeds into Lake Sakakawea, which supplies drinking water to the area.

In the first days after the spill, regulators estimated that 70,000 barrels had been released — that’s 3 million gallon jugs — near the Blacktail Creek, which is 15 miles north of Williston. And last weekend, just one day after the anniversary of the spill, there has been another brine spill at the same site. Add another additional 7,854 gallons to the brine that must be removed.


Leaking for longer

Regulators have said their investigation uncovered evidence the pipeline that fouled the Blacktail Creek had been leaking as far back as October, and they have proposed a $2.4 million fine.

Njos says she and her family noticed certain oddities about the creek that runs through part of their property long before January.

“It was more orangish than usual,” Njos recalls. “We stopped seeing beavers and it didn’t freeze in November, as it usually does.”

Those were red flags for a spill, regulators say, which they hope in future will trigger calls to appropriate regulatory agencies from anyone who notices them.

“If you see things out of the ordinary in your travels in the country that just don’t look right, call us,” said David Glatt, director of the North Dakota Department of Health. “We heard some reports that the creek was flowing in a time of year it never was before. Those kinds of things raise flags and questions. People can contact us and we will send folks out to check it out. It’s OK to call us if you see something in the environment that just doesn’t look quite right.”

That is all well and good, Njos says, but her family didn’t even know there was a pipeline in the vicinity.

That may be partly because, up until now, regulatory agencies haven’t had any real authority when it comes to siting smaller gathering systems.

Regulators point out the rate of brine spills has remained constant as compared to number of wells or barrels of oil produced, but the overall volume of such spills has tripled. Lack of regulatory authority for such systems was among factors cited in a recent study examining the problem.

In the next installment of this five-part series, we’ll look at the rise in brine spills in the state, and what’s being done to curtail it.

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