Lance Loken calls himself a high-priced janitor.
By BRYCE MARTIN
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.