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Native Sun News: North Dakota tribe sees growth in fracking wells

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota hosts more than 1,000 fracking wells, the subject of an EPA drinking water study. Photo by Talli Nauman

Help tribes protect water from fracking
EPA opens public comment period
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

WASHINGTON –– To frack or to drink the water: That is the question addressed by a long-awaited EPA release June 4 of a draft assessment about hydraulic fracturing impacts in gas and oil fields, such as those at the center of the Bakken play in the Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

“This report can be used by federal, tribal, state, and local officials, industry, and the public to better understand and address any vulnerabilities of drinking water resources to hydraulic fracturing activities,” the EPA said in the draft’s executive summary.

The release came just one day after MHA Tribal Business Council Chair Mark Fox parleyed outside of Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation headquarters in New Town, North Dakota with Rally for Change demonstrators.

Among demands rally goers formulated for Fox was one to respond to the frack water spills and other oil field accidents by boosting the tribal Environmental Department’s strength, arming it “with an emergency first-responder team.”

The reservation is home to more than 1,000 active fracking wells and has experienced two major toxic brine water spills from associated pipelines during the past one-year period.

Tribal members are still waiting to learn the results of water testing conducted in the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea after a 24,000 barrel pipeline spill in July 2014 that spoiled a two-mile-long, 200-yard-wide swatch of vegetation on a tributary of the river.

Hydraulic fracturing is a fossil-fuel extraction method using high pressure underground injection of water, chemicals and sand to break up formations bearing petroleum and flush it to the surface.

The federal assessment covers the water use throughout the hydraulic fracturing process -- from water acquisition to chemical mixing at the well pad site and well injection of fracking fluids, to the collection of wastewater, treatment and disposal.

The sources of threats to drinking water the EPA found included instances of: withdrawals in areas with short supply; fracturing conducted in formations containing potable water resources; inadequately cased or cemented wells resulting in below ground migration of gases and liquids; untreated waste discharges; spills of hydraulic fluids, flowback and produced water.

However, the draft study concluded: “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.

“Of the potential mechanisms identified in this report, we found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells. The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells,” it said.

This finding could reflect “a rarity of effects on drinking water resources, but may also be due to other limiting factors,” it said. These factors include insufficient baseline water quality data, lack of long term studies, and “the inaccessibility of some information,” the agency noted.

Translated into plain talk, environmental watchdogs said, the EPA admitted that industry did not provide the information the researchers needed, nor was it bound to do so.

“Oil and gas extraction practices are permanently removing at least 7 billion gallons of water from the hydrologic cycle each year in just four arid western states,” according to the recent Gone for Good report published by the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), a coalition of non-profit membership groups in the Inter-Mountain West.

“We need to conserve water for the next generation, and the one after that,” said Theodora Bird Bear, a Board member of WORC’s Dakota Resource Council, who is a Three Affiliated Tribes member and a resident of Fort Berthold Reservation. “That means reducing the amount of water used for oil drilling, or finding ways to purify and recycle it.”

The reason for the huge loss of water is that states and tribes have failed to place adequate protections on the use and contamination of fresh water in hydraulic fracturing in the Bakken field and other places, according to the study.

The EPA released 29 peer-reviewed articles and scientific papers to accompany its assessment. “It is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date, including over 950 sources of information, published papers, numerous technical reports, information from stakeholders and peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports,” EPA Science Adviser Thomas A. Burke said.

The release marks the beginning of a public comment period. Instructions for public input can be found on the EPA's website.

The EPA noted that officials in state and tribal jurisdictions can use the information to regulate fracking in the numerous cases where federal authority is limited by exemptions under the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

(Contact Talli Nauman, NSN Health and Environment Editor at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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