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Brine Spills Associated with Unconventional Oil Development in North Dakota

A stream in North Dakota contaminated by an accidental spill. (Photo by Avner Vengosh)

A stream in North Dakota contaminated by an accidental spill. (Photo by Avner Vengosh)

This study of the Duke University’s Nicolas School of the Environment shows widespread water and soil contamination caused by more than 3.900 wastewater spills from unconventional oil production in North Dakota.

  • Researchers found high levels of ammonium, selenium, lead and other toxic contaminants as well as high salts in the brine-laden wastewater, which primarily comes from hydraulically fractured oil wells in the Bakken region of western North Dakota.
  • Soil at the spill sites was contaminated with radium, a naturally occurring radioactive element found in brines.
  • Streams were found to be polluted by the wastewater, containing levels of contaminants that often exceeded federal guidelines for safe drinking water or aquatic health.

The rapid rise of unconventional oil production during the past decade in the Bakken region of North Dakota raises concerns related to water contamination associated with the accidental release of oil and gas wastewater to the environment. Here, we characterize the major and trace element chemistry and isotopic ratios (87Sr/86Sr, δ18O, δ2H) of surface waters (n = 29) in areas impacted by oil and gas wastewater spills in the Bakken region of North Dakota. We establish geochemical and isotopic tracers that can identify Bakken brine spills in the environment. In addition to elevated concentrations of dissolved salts (Na, Cl, Br), spill waters also consisted of elevated concentrations of other contaminants (Se, V, Pb, NH4) compared to background waters, and soil and sediment in spill sites had elevated total radium activities (228Ra + 226Ra) relative to background, indicating accumulation of Ra in impacted soil and sediment. We observed that inorganic contamination associated with brine spills in North Dakota is remarkably persistent, with elevated levels of contaminants observed in spills sites up to 4 years following the spill events.

Lauer NE, Harkness JS, Vengosh A
Brine Spills Associated with Unconventional Oil Development in North Dakota.
Environ Sci Technol. 2016 Apr 27. [Epub ahead of print]

See also:
Avner Vengosh, Contamination in North Dakota Linked to Fracking Spills. Duke University, Nicolas School of the Environment, Apr. 27, 2016
Laureen Donovan, Study indicates lingering saltwater contamination in oil patch. Bismarck Tribune, Apr 27, 2016
Zahra Hirji, Persistent Water and Soil Contamination Found at N.D. Wastewater Spills. Inside Climate News, Apr 29, 2016
Sharon Kelly, Duke Study Finds A “Legacy of Radioactivity,” Contamination from Thousands of Fracking Wastewater Spills. DesmogBlog, May 8, 2016


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