STANLEY, N.D. – Mountrail County leaders told the state’s top oil regulator Tuesday to get his department’s communications in line after an oversight led to a waste pit being located too close to a city’s water well.
Commissioners told Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms they’d like to have more communication with the state agency about waste sites where drilling cuttings – a waste product of oil development – are buried.
The discussion came after a Department of Mineral Resources field inspector approved of a pit too close to the water well for the city of Ross.
“I just can’t conceive of a failure to communicate something that’s probably been known for years that this is a wellhead protection area,” said Mountrail County Commissioner David Hynek, prompting applause from a standing-room-only crowd.
Helms told commissioners he takes full responsibility for the oversight and his department made changes so field inspectors now have access to wellhead protection area maps from the field.
Helms also said the company, Oasis Petroleum, immediately stopped using the pit and has since volunteered to remove the waste and restore the area.
Ross Mayor Wyatt Seibel said he still has questions about the possibility of contamination occurring when the cuttings are removed and whether the pit will be monitored in the future.
“What if the damage has already been done?” Seibel asked.
The issue of how to handle oilfield waste dominated the commission’s meeting Tuesday, including a proposal from a Georgia company that wants to construct a landfill that would be an alternative to cuttings pits.
An average Bakken well will have about 26 semi-loads of drill cuttings that require disposal, Helms said.
If the oil company chooses to dispose of the cuttings by burying them on the drilling location, the North Dakota Industrial Commission has sole jurisdiction over that waste pit.
There is no specific limit to the size of a cuttings pit, but the sites can’t accept material for longer than one year and they must be closed within 30 days of drilling of the last well on the location, Helms said.
Prior to disposal, dry drill cuttings are mixed with an approved stabilizing material such as fly ash so they won’t be permeable to water, Helms said.
“It’s like a cement,” Helms said. “Basically that chunk of cuttings becomes impermeable to water.”
The cuttings pits are monitored from the surface by the North Dakota Industrial Commission for the life of the oil wells, Helms said.
Special waste landfills, which can accept cuttings from multiple sites in addition to other types of waste, have wells to monitor the groundwater around the pit. Those landfills are monitored for at least 30 years after the landfill has closed.
Mountrail County Commission Chairman Arlo Borud said he thinks the state should do more to monitor cuttings pits.
“We’ve got to monitor the outside and underneath to see if there is leakage,” Borud said. “They need to change that. By the time it comes to the top, the problem’s there.”
County officials also said companies are not following through with a state requirement to report the location of cuttings pits to the county recorder’s office.
When Mountrail County resident Ceylon Feiring asked Helms if he would allow a cuttings pit in his backyard, Helms replied “absolutely.”
Helms said state and federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, have researched disposal of drill cuttings for 30 years and he’s confident North Dakota handles the waste appropriately.
Commissioner Garry Jacobson said he’d like county officials to permit the cuttings pits.
“Right now, we’re left in the dark,” Jacobson said.
Green Group Holdings, a Georgia-based company that has landfills in several states and Guam, is proposing an industrial landfill in Mountrail County that would only accept certain kinds of oilfield wastes, such as drill cuttings and material from oil spills.
Senior vice president Oscar Allen said the landfill would have more robust engineering and monitoring than cuttings pits. The company also plans to work closely with local communities and develop a host contract.
Allen estimates Mountrail County will generate 2.8 million to 5.4 million tons of oilfield waste in the next 15 to 20 years, but currently the county does not have a landfill that can accept oilfield waste.
Some oil companies are moving away from cuttings pits, Allen said, and having a centralized disposal location would give operators that option.
“To put it simply, it will give them the opportunity to make better decisions,” Allen said.
Further discussion of the proposal was postponed until next month so the company can present traffic analysis information. The county has a six-month moratorium on oilfield waste landfills that expires in May to give officials time to study the issue.
“The magnitude of what this decision is going to result in is going to affect our grandchildren’s grandchildren,” said County Planner Don Longmuir.