WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) — A North Dakota Health Department official says his office may give the green light for wider use of oil field-produced brine on roads for dust control this year.
Dave Glatt, the head of the Health Department's Environmental Health Section, said that pilot projects and tests are underway to determine the environmental impact of brine's use on roads as well as its effectiveness compared to commercially available products. He said the Health Department is also working to identify saltwater disposal wells that could be used as a source for brine.
"We want to maintain the same level of dust control and the same level of environmental impact, if not less," Glatt said. No timetable was set for a decision, he said.
Brine is a byproduct of oil production and is between 10 and 30 times saltier than seawater, Glatt said.
Dust is a big problem on the rural gravel and scoria roads that are essential to oil production and crisscross the western part of the state. On dry days with heavy traffic, the plumes of dust can create near-whiteout conditions.
But controlling dust is expensive. Magnesium chloride, the most commonly used dust control agent, can cost $7,000 per mile to treat a roadway. Brine can be obtained for free from oil companies, only requiring users to pay for labor and transport. That means hundreds of dollars per mile rather than thousands.
Glatt said that brine isn't as effective in controlling dust as other agents and could require more treatments, but that the cost remains attractive.
Several counties in the state's oil patch have expressed interest in switching to brine for dust control to save money.
Brine from oil fields was used on North Dakota roads for decades until the Health Department stopped the practice in 2007 after The Associated Press raised questions about it. Currently, brine's use on roadways is allowed on a very limited case-by-case basis.
Some people remain concerned about it.
"If it was just saltwater, it would be one thing, but it contains toxins and chemicals used in the fracking process that are highly toxic to wildlife and humans," said Wayde Schafer, the Sierra Club's North Dakota organizer.
Fracking refers to hydraulic fracturing — injecting a pressurized mix of water, sand and chemicals into drilled wells to fracture rocks and promote the flow of oil and gas.
Oil field brine is currently considered an environmental hazard by the state and must be disposed of properly. Spills — either intentional or not — can result in stiff penalties.
In April, a Black Hills Trucking Inc. driver was charged for allegedly dumping brine on a road in Williams County. If convicted, the man could face five years in prison, and the state is seeking nearly $1 million in fines from his company.
"There is a big difference between a wholesale spill and a measured quantity being put onto a roadside," Glatt said.
Brine's use would be regulated, Glatt said. "We would allow it to be used from specific sources at specific rates in certain counties," he said.
Both state and local officials say oil companies remain hesitant to provide brine, fearing potential liability issues if something goes wrong. Glatt said counties that use brine, not the companies, would be liable for any misuse.
Not all oil patch counties are interested.
McKenzie County, the state's top oil-producing county, uses between 30,000 and 50,000 gallons of magnesium chloride for dust control every day in the summer, according to Mike Dollinger of the county's road department. But Dollinger said shifting to brine was unlikely since it would require the county to acquire new equipment.