ROSS, N.D. – Officials in Mountrail County say state regulators “dropped the ball” when a field inspector approved an oilfield waste pit too close to the water well for the city of Ross.
The pit is no longer in use, but the situation is prompting local officials to meet with Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms next week to discuss preventing similar cases from occurring again.
“You wouldn’t think that that big of a mistake could be overlooked, but apparently it can,” Ross Mayor Wyatt Seibel said.
Oasis Petroleum is permitted to drill 11 oil wells in a 1,280-acre area near Ross. The location of the disposal pit for dry drill cuttings – a waste product of oil drilling – was approved by a field inspector of the Department of Mineral Resources Oil and Gas Division, said Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the Department of Mineral Resources.
The pit was about 700 yards from the city’s water well and within a buffer area known as the Wellhead Protection Area, Ritter said.
Local officials noticed dump trucks hauling material to that site and called state officials because they recognized it was too close to the water well, Seibel said.
“It’s too close for comfort, that’s for sure,” Seibel said. “It’s pretty much our only water source.”
The Department of Mineral Resources immediately told the company to stop using the pit, Ritter said. Oasis had been hauling drill cuttings there for one day, she said.
Eric Bayes, general manager for Oasis Petroleum’s operations in the Williston Basin, said the company started hauling drill cuttings to another disposal site as soon as it became aware of the issue.
Mountrail County Commissioner David Hynek said he was shocked to learn the pit had been located in the Wellhead Protection Area, which he said is information easily available online.
“I think they just dropped the ball and failed to do due diligence,” Hynek said. “It was just something overlooked.”
The inspector did not have access to the Wellhead Protection Area information in the field, Ritter said. This case has prompted the department to change its procedures, and now field inspectors will have access to that information, she said.
“We’ve done everything we can to try to rectify the situation as quickly as possible,” Ritter said.
Drill cuttings can have a high salt content and diesel content, said Scott Radig, director of the Division of Waste Management for the North Dakota Department of Health. The waste could pose a threat to water sources if the liner of the pit becomes torn and soils in the area are permeable, Radig said.
In this case, the location of the cuttings pit could have created a long-term problem for the city of Ross, but even if the pit did leak, it would have taken years for contamination to reach the water source, Radig said.
“There was no immediate danger to the aquifer or the city of Ross,” Radig said.
Oasis Petroleum has decided to close the pit, remove the cuttings and restore the area to its natural condition, Bayes said.
The Oasis pit was originally been planned for another site in the drilling area but had to be moved after the company realized the water table was too high in the original spot, Ritter said.
Waste pits such as this one, which take cuttings from one drilling location, fall only under the jurisdiction of the North Dakota Industrial Commission. The health department and local and county officials are not involved in the permitting process.
“We struggle with that to some degree,” Hynek said. “Chances are, this particular situation could have been avoided had local governments been aware that it was going to be put where it in fact ended up.”
Officials plan to have a “lengthy discussion” with Helms when he comes to a county meeting on Tuesday about preventing this from reoccuring and how best to approach oilfield waste disposal, Hynek said.
Mountrail County also has issued a six-month moratorium on larger oilfield waste landfills, which can take waste from multiple drilling sites. Commissioners want to take that time to develop guidelines for the landfills, Hynek said.