Putting Oilfield Brine On Roads Could Help Clear The Air

A truck travels down a McKenzie County rural road in July 2012. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WATFORD CITY, N.D. – What is now considered oilfield waste could be reused as an affordable way to control dust on western North Dakota roads, officials said Wednesday.

The North Dakota Department of Health is studying whether oilfield brine, or the saltwater that is a byproduct of producing oil wells, can safely be used to control dust on gravel roads.

If dust isn’t the No. 1 quality of life complaint for western North Dakota residents, it ranks in the top 10, said Vicky Steiner, executive director of the North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties, who coordinated a dust control meeting Wednesday.

Dust from heavy truck traffic on gravel roads in North Dakota’s Oil Patch is affecting the health of humans, animals and crops. The haze from truck traffic is sometimes so thick it creates traffic hazards.

“You seriously have to stop,” said Dunn County Commissioner Donna Scott. “You can’t even see because the dust is so thick.”

Counties are spending millions each year on dust control, many using commercial products with magnesium chloride or calcium chloride.

Dave Glatt, chief of the Environmental Health Section of the North Dakota Department of Health, said the produced water or oilfield brine from some North Dakota oil wells has similar properties to the commercial products.

The Health Department is working to identify wells in each county that may have brine that is suitable for dust control.

“To me, it makes some sense that you’re taking a waste and you’re putting it to a beneficial use,” Glatt said.

The use of oilfield brine was questioned several years ago by an out-of-state law firm, Glatt said.

“People were asking, ‘Are they really doing dust control or are they just doing it to dispose of it?” Glatt said.

The practice was discontinued because the state didn’t have data about the environmental impact of the brine or the beneficial use, Glatt said. The Health Department has since conducted soil and water samples and found no environmental impact, he said.

“Certain oilfield brines can be an option for dust control,” Glatt said. “And we have the documentation to show that.”

Francis Schwindt, who formerly held Glatt’s job and is the principal investigator for a dust control study, tested various commercial products that cost between $6,000 per mile to $23,000 per mile. Applying oilfield brine cost about $700 per mile.

The oilfield brine Schwindt tested was not very effective, but brine with a higher calcium content applied multiple times could produce similar results to the commercial products, Schwindt said.

The North Dakota Legislature approved $3 million for a pilot program to study dust control in Bowman, Dunn and Mountrail counties. An additional $3 million could be available for further study this biennium.

Schwindt also is studying whether drill cuttings, another oilfield waste product, can be used as aggregate for roads.