Published June 19, 2011, 12:00 AM

Reserve pits pose concerns for natural resource managers

The consensus among those attending the recent tour of wild lands affected by western North Dakota’s burgeoning oil industry is that the so-called “reserve pits” pose some of the largest potential threats to land and water resources.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

IN THE OIL PATCH, western N.D. — The consensus among those attending the recent tour of wild lands affected by the state’s burgeoning oil industry is that the so-called “reserve pits” pose some of the largest potential threats to land and water resources.

Similar in size to a swimming pool, reserve pits hold the waste products of the drilling process, a toxic mixture of salts, drilling fluids and chemicals. The pits are lined with a heavy grade plastic, and once drilling is complete, the liquids are pumped down and hauled away, and fly ash is added to solidify what remains.

A layer of plastic then is placed over the material, and the pit is covered with topsoil.

Earlier this month, North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources levied fines of more than $3 million against 20 companies that failed to take adequate precautions against spring flooding in the Oil Patch. About 50 of the state’s 500 or so reserve pits were compromised by the flooding, and the runoff in some cases polluted wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas.

The long-term impact is uncertain, despite strict state regulations and cleanup efforts.

There’s also concern that the plastic lining the pits — thicker than a Hefty bag, but not by much — will tear or degrade over time.

“Reserve pits are an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen,” said Fred Ryckman, northwestern district fisheries supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Williston. “These things have the potential to cause us a lot of headaches down the road. They have to go away — that’s all there is to it.”

Wetland ruined

One of the breaches to occur this spring affected a small U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service easement near Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, where an oil well pad and reserve pit was built over a wetland and a “dry run” creek that flows during times of high water.

Doug Leschisin, manager of Lostwood NWR, said the runoff from the mid-April flooding stained vegetation a half-mile downstream from the spill site.

There were no observable impacts at a waterfowl production area 2½ miles away, but ditches across the road from the site still show the scars, including booms placed to soak up the oil.

“You could physically smell oil all the way down,” Leschisin said. “It flowed for a day before they got out here. It ruined a wetland site.

“It’s not an easy thing to fix, but it’s an easy thing to avoid.”

Leschisin said the oil companies most of the time are willing to listen to Fish and Wildlife Service concerns about wetland impacts when deciding where to place a well.

“This was one of the few where it was, ‘too bad,’” he said. “When push came to shove, they said, ‘we have mineral rights.’”

More resources needed

State Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, took part in the tour to see firsthand the extent of development after a legislative session dominated by Oil Patch issues.

“I knew intellectually we were talking about one well on every two sections across western North Dakota coming down the pike, but knowing it is one thing and seeing it is another,” Triplett said. “It really is a lot more powerful when you see it on the landscape and the effect it is having on the roads and the fragmentation of land areas for wildlife and the impacts on farm residences in terms of the noise and the dust and all the rest of it.”

Triplett said state regulations are “reasonably good,” but enforcement may be lacking, at times, because the oil development is happening faster than regulators can handle; everybody’s overworked.

“I think maybe the Legislature hasn’t given them adequate support in terms of personnel,” Triplett said. “We tried to rectify that to some degree this year, but I fear we still haven’t given them enough resources.”

One positive, she said, is that the state Industrial Commission is considering the banning of reserve pits in favor of “closed-loop” drilling, in which the byproducts are recycled rather than buried.

“Regulations need to evolve with the intensity of the oil boom we’re having right now,” Triplett said. “In defense of everyone, legislators and regulators and local politicians, it really has ramped up very, very quickly and it is hard to keep pace, but I think everybody has to keep their eye on the ball, and making money and producing oil is not the only goal here.”

Location, location

Mistakes can be not only expensive, but damaging, said Kent Luttschwager, wildlife resource supervisor for the Game and Fish Department in Williston.

“With the development that’s occurring at such a rapid rate, we really need to minimize mistakes in the locations or the design of some of these (oil well) sites,” Luttschwager said. “So, if there is a spill, that it doesn’t go down into drainages or into rivers or Lake Sakakawea or into a watershed or wetlands.”

There has to be a balance, in other words, between the gung-ho attitude of drilling every square mile and preserving the North Dakota so many people treasure.

“When all is said and done, we want North Dakota to be a place where our children and grandchildren want to live,” Triplett said.

This story includes material from The Associated Press.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send email to