The water supply of a town in the heart of North Dakota's oil boom may be threatened by an oil drilling waste pit placed within a half-mile of the town's water wells.
The town in question is Ross - located just west of Stanley in Mountrail County.
The state Oil and Gas Division has ordered dumping at the site stopped while an environmental assessment is done.
Jim Olson reports on the waste pit, the water supply, and the various governmental bodies dealing with the issue.
Mountrail County's state's attorney doesn't mince words.
(Wade Enget, Mountrail Co. State's Attorney) "To me it's a clear violation of at least the common sense of at least talking to another state agency."
(David Hynek, Mountrail Co. Commissioner) "My initial reaction on Tuesday was I was a bit dumbfounded."
The state health department confirms - that this pit made to hold waste generated when wells are dug is within what's called the Wellhead Protection Area for the town of Ross's water wells. It's the area in pink on this map - a map that's readily available to the public, and state agencies deciding on granting permission for such pits.
(Wade Enget, Mountrail Co. State's Attorney) "The state wellhead protection is easily looked at online and definable. It's not hidden from the public and not hidden from the state agencies."
(David Hynek, Mountrail Co. Commissioner) "We've been struggling with what to do with these types of products coming from the oil industry and we're working our way through that as a county."
Longtime county commissioner David Hynek says the commission recently ordered a one year moratorium on similar pits. The commissioners want to understand the dangers of the pits - and the new reality that one stretch of land called a spacing area for oil wells might contain several wells - all with a need for disposing of the cuttings produced by drilling.
(David Hynek, Mountrail Co. Commissioner) "It's conceivable you could have 36 wells on that spacing and all of the cuttings from those 36 wells could be centrally located into one disposal pit."
But Alison Ritter of the Oil and Gas Division of the Industrial Commission says one pit for a spacing area is allowed by law and is common practice. She says the problem with this particular pit is that had been planned for a location about two miles west of here. But that location didn't work out and this new spot was picked after the permit had been issued and work had begun.
(Alison Ritter, ND Oil & Gas Division) "Because of where this well was originally permitted, it wasn't a concern at that time because the original permitting of the well was so far from that wellhead protection area."
Ritter says as soon as the Oil and Gas Division learned of concerns regarding the location of the pit, dumping was ordered stopped - that was last Thursday.
(Alison Ritter, ND Oil & Gas Division) "Once it was brought to our attention that this cuttings pit was in proximity to this wellhead protection area the cuttings pit was shut down the next day."
That begs the question - if the health department must determine if the site is safe now, why was the health department not consulted before the pit was constructed? Ritter says normal procedure would include the health department, except the circumstances in this case meant that consultation was missed. That's something Dave Glatt of the health department thinks needs to be examined.
(Dave Glatt, ND Health Department) "When they get into sensitive environmental areas such as a wellhead protection area, I do think we should be consulted on the location and they type of protection measures that should be taken in these environmentally sensitive areas."
County officials say they will watch the process closely to make sure the water supply of Ross is not put in danger.
In Ross, Jim Olson, KX News.
The North Dakota Health Department is in the process of getting information on the dry cutting pit near Ross.
Dave Glatt of the Department of Health says one load of dry cutting materials had been brought to the pit before it was shut down.
Glatt says the department is gathering additional information on the construction of the pit, what it's going to be used for, and the plans for abandoning the pit.
He says they had no knowledge about this pit until recently.
Glatt says the Health Department is concerned about potential impacts.
He says another concern is there is nothing limiting access to the pit, he says officials and the public want to be assured only dry drill cuttings are going into the pit.
(David Glatt, North Dakota Department of Health's Environmental Health Chief) "What concerned about is any liquids coming off the solids and getting into the soil and migrating into the ground water. From any drilling type of drilling activity whether it is oil, brine solution, chemicals used during the process, we want to make sure those are contained and not introduced into the environment."
Glatt says there is no time table for when the health department may have a decision on if the pit should be allowed to re-open.