Dunn Center speaker warns, educates residents on possible spills

Lance Loken calls himself a high-priced janitor.

Lance Loken, an environmental and natural resources consultant, has discovered several “disturbing” contamination sites in North Dakota, including radioactive water in Minot. (Photo by BRYCE MARTIN/Herald)
Lance Loken, an environmental and natural resources consultant, has discovered several “disturbing” contamination sites in North Dakota, including radioactive water in Minot. (Photo by BRYCE MARTIN/Herald)


Herald Editor

Posted March 22, 2013

DUNN CENTER — Lance Loken calls himself a high-priced janitor. That’s because it’s part of his job to cleanup after the oil companies when they encounter a spill.

Dunn County Commissioner Daryl Dukart, on behalf of the Dunn County Energy Development Organization, invited Loken to speak in Dunn Center on Monday.

“(I’m) not here to badmouth (the) oil industry,” Loken said.

Speaking to more than a dozen farmers and landowners, Loken explained his background with Western Plains Consulting Inc., a North Dakota-based environmental and natural resources consulting firm, in great detail. He has worked as a consultant since 1989 and has served on the Bakken Task Force, in addition to many other roles.

One of Loken’s most disturbing experiences with ground contamination was in Billings County, west of Fairfield. Nine dead cattle turned up randomly on a rancher’s land. An oil company with a well nearby sent Loken out to the site thinking their oil reserve was leaking.

Loken and his team tested surrounding water ponds, with a startling result – sulfates and chlorides were very high.

“Mama Nature didn’t put that there,” Loken said. “Whoever says cattle can’t die from this stuff is lying through their teeth.”

The probable culprit for the contamination and dead cattle was the dumping of salt water – high in sulfates – which drivers were caught dumping in inappropriate locations within the area.

Oil comes out of the ground as a mix of crude oil and salt water. The salts are mobile and, depending on the type, they can move quickly. While chloride in water is not naturally occurring in western North Dakota, safe levels in water is typically less than 20 parts-per-million (ppm).

But the high toxicity, which resulted in the death of the cattle, came from the sodium ion, not the chloride.

Upon groundwater contamination, the crude oil floats, but the salt is dissolved.

“(I’d) rather cleanup crude oil than salt water though,” he said.

The Oil and Gas Division, a state agency, is supposed to regulate such matters, but does not have “rules,” rather they maintain a series of set guidelines. Loken said, however, that the oilfield workers he’s spoken with do not like having only guidelines.

Loken said he wonders where the agricultural industry is during the contaminations.

“You would think they’d be screaming to high Heaven,” he said.

While Canadian oil companies require soil surveys, they do not in the United States, which could present a problem upon land reclamation.

“What’s the quality of soil being put back? Is it similar or something cheap?” Loken said. “They’re not asking soil scientists.”

Oil companies that have been present longer tend to be more proactive than new ones coming in, he said. And while his experience with the oil companies mostly has been good, Loken said his experiences with state agencies “leaves some to be desired.”

“ND has unique geology. This isn’t West Texas. This is a unique ecosystem,” he said.

In Minot, Loken made another surprising discovery – one that left him concerned.

Loken conducted an environmental test at an abandoned salvage yard located at an undisclosed location in Minot. The adjacent property was known to take waste from the Minot Air Force Base. As Loken investigated the area, he found a letter from the North Dakota Department of Health that basically recommended the tap water should not be consumed.

His tests discovered the water was radioactive.

North Dakota and Iowa are the top two states for radioactive materials. Radiation results in about 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year, but there are different radioactive isotopes that result in different contamination.

Radiation occurring in the ground contains low-energy Alpha waves. While it’s not immediately a health hazard, the long-term cumulative effects could be dangerous.

“It’s good to be aware of it,” Loken said.

To report possible contamination or a chemical spill, the first call should be made to Dunn County Emergency Manager Denise Brew, who then handles contacting the necessary parties.

“Be as proactive as you can,” Dukart said.

Contact Bryce Martin at bmartin@countrymedia.net.

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2 thoughts on “Dunn Center speaker warns, educates residents on possible spills

  1. I understand the concerns that generated this article, but I feel some significant clarifications and corrections must be made. I was invited by the Dunn County Energy Development Organization to speak to their membership on the subject of energy impacts to soils and the environment in western North Dakota.
    As a North Dakota native, working as a consultant and cleaning up spills and contamination of all types for nearly twenty-five years, I agreed to share some of our experiences and answer questions.
    Up to a few years ago, most of our cleanups were related to gas stations, tanks, train and vehicle accidents with various chemicals and fuels, but now it has shifted more to oil-field related cleanups involving crude oil and saltwater.
    I was asked if I was seeing more frequent or challenging spills and we discussed various examples, from well blowouts and leaking pipelines, to clandestine dumping of sewage and saltwater. The majority of companies that we work with are more than willing to rapidly and safely address releases and meet, often exceed, regulatory requirements. However, we are encountering situations where multiple agencies are involved. And, not all rules are created equal. I strongly encourage better coordination among agencies to unify their environmental requirements, particularly associated with saltwater (i.e., chloride, sulfates, and sodium).
    At the meeting we talked at length about the impact of saltwater on soil and various cleanup levels. The project involving cattle and saltwater was incorrectly described in the article.
    The subject of radiation was also brought up at the meeting. Of course we were referring to naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM). It might also be called radon, which we have known about for years and there is much information available on the subject. The “radioactive testing” project was incorrectly described.
    I believe that good partnerships can be formed between landowners and oil companies. Providing education and consistent regulation will help to strengthen that partnership.

  2. I do not understand the statement that the Oil and Gas people at the ND Industrial Commission are a regulatory agency and have guidelines,but not rules. I am a retired environmental regulatory official from another state,and am used to the working guidelines referred to as regulations, and the law the regulations were derived from is called code or statute. So, I think ND calls their law the Century Code. It would be helpful if people learned and used the common terms.

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