Cleaning Up Old Oil Messes


Tens of thousands of oil wells have been drilled into North Dakota’s soil over the past six decades.

Many are no longer producing black gold.

But some are still producing something else – environmental problems.

Jim Olson reports on a state-funded program to clean up old oil well messes.

There was an oil well at this McKenzie County site back in 1977.

(Cody Vanderbusch, ND Dept. of Mineral Resources) “It was a dry hole…”

So – no oil was produced here – yet not, 40 years later, it’s a problem.

(Cody Vanderbusch, ND Dept. of Mineral Resources) “We noticed some dead vegetation on the surface and that needed more work and then noticed it went down into this wetland behind us.”

What went into the wetland? Oil and saltwater from a faulty reserve pit that was dug at the site.

(Jon Ellingson, Terracon Project Director) “Hydrocarbon and salt brine penetrated about 18 feet at this site.”

(Cody Vanderbusch, ND Dept. of Mineral Resources) “The main contaminant here that’s been moving is the salt water and it kills vegetation and can kill aquatic life.”

(Jacqueline Finck, Terracon Geologist) “This is our lab area where we do some field screening.”

Jacqueline Finck is a geologist with Terracon – the company hired by the State Department of Mineral Resources to clean up the mess.

(Jacqueline Finck, Terracon Geologist) “It helps us read the saline soils. Brine is conductive so this will help us get some measurements in the field.”

With her measurements – and lots of truckloads of contaminated soil

(Jon Ellingson, Terracon Project Director) “Today we got 19 going – it’ll be anywhere from 15-25 trucks hauling to the landfill.”

This site will be cleaned of the byproduct of long-ago oil drilling – back before environmental protections now required by the state were in place.

(Cody Vanderbusch, ND Dept. of Mineral Resources) “There weren’t rules in place back in 1977 for pits and drilling operations of that sort.”

Cody Vanderbusch’s job with the state is to make sure the work is done properly

(Cody Vanderbusch, ND Dept. of Mineral Resources) “I come periodically when Terracon has questions. I help make decisions with them and the knowledge they’ve gained from being on site.”

(Jon Ellingson, Terracon Project Director) “This is a pretty good sized site – probably one of the larger ones we’ve worked on with the North Dakota Industrial Commission.”

Jon Elligson is the project director for Terracon – and says the work is slow and tedious

(Jon Ellingson, Terracon Project Director) “We continually test every foot. They’ll take a foot out and we’ll test it so we’re not taking too much out as well.”

(Jacqueline Finck, Terracon Geologist) “It’s always important to constantly be testing the soil to make sure we’re getting all the contamination.”

And one more thing that’s important when you’re working on a sun-drenched North Dakota field? Sunscreen!

(Jacqueline Finck, Terracon Geologist) “With the sun you need the sunscreen!”

Because cleaning up one of the old problems can take seven or eight weeks. In McKenzie County, Jim Olson, KX news.

The state legislature provided five million dollars for reclamation of old oil sites over the next two years.


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