It started with rust. In the toilet. On the shower stall. Helen Ricker saw the orange stains and wondered what was causing them. Her water came from a well, from an aquifer that had always been good. So she drank the water anyway. Beneath the ground, the diluted edges of a large groundwater contamination were seeping by in a slow, gravity-fed progression. Little by little, Ricker's water got worse.
The water stained her white sheets when she washed them and turned her white socks orange. Every time she filled the sink to do dishes, the water's surface shimmered with an iridescent sheen. Residual grease covered her plates long after soap washed away the night's meal. Then the water started to stink. A sulfurous stench rose from the toilet in the bathroom and cascaded out of her faucets. Ricker stopped drinking her water.
Ricker lives on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation three miles north of the town of Poplar, on the desolate BIA Road 75. Her home lies two miles southwest of the East Poplar oilfields, a large expanse crisscrossed with rutted dirt roads and spotted with blue, yellow and black oil pumps bobbing up and down like plastic drinking birds from a novelty store. The oilfield is not as productive as it used to be. But that soon may change.
The Fort Peck Indian Reservation is on the western edge of the Williston Basin. Beneath the reservation and expanding east into North Dakota is the shale-rich Bakken formation. In the past, the oil and gas in this particular rock was untappable. But recent advances in oil and gas drilling technology have provided a way to break the Bakken's grasp on what is now known as the largest continuous deposit of natural gas and oil in the U.S.
The once humble farming town of Williston, N.D., which is at the center of the Bakken reservoir, is now bursting at the seams with oil workers from all over the U.S.
Though Poplar is only 97 miles west of Williston, things are still very quiet there. Hotels have vacancies, and restaurants have empty tables. But many believe that a new oil boom is on its way.
Fort Peck experienced its first oil and gas boom in the 1950s. Then, like now in Williston, men and huge machines descended upon the rolling land north of Poplar. Oil wells speckled the area. The East Poplar oilfield was tapped first, and regulated later. On the outskirts of Poplar, groups of thin-walled houses popped up—shantytowns nicknamed after their parent oil company.
Today, the skeleton of "Murphyville" remains as one of many reminders of the boom. A more jarring reminder, however, is below the surface. The oil rush of the 1950s led to thick plumes of contaminated groundwater. Fifty years later, the era still haunts people like Ricker who have been living on bottled water for the past three decades. So while many on the reservation prepare for a new oil boom, Ricker and her neighbors are still living with the consequences of the last one.
Ricker, 72, lives with her husband, George, in a house perched above the meandering Poplar River. The view from their house is one of overwhelming sky and rolling hills cut by deep ravines. In the distance are the profiles of numerous oil wells. Ricker has dark shoulder-length hair streaked lightly with gray. When relaxed, her face sags under the weight of the years, of raising her children and grandchildren, of losing one son to cancer, of surviving breast cancer herself. But then she smiles and time and tension slip away.
Ricker is three-quarters Sioux and an enrolled member of the affiliated Fort Peck tribes. She grew up in the vast country off Road 75, on land held in trust by the federal government for the Sioux and Assiniboine people. Her current residence is only a quarter mile away from her childhood home. A lot has changed since she was young.
As a child, Ricker filled buckets with well water from the single pump in her yard to wash clothes or do dishes. Ask anyone who lived in or around Poplar at the time and they will say the same thing: the water off Road 75 had a special quality. It was cold, clean and sweet.
That is rare in northeastern Montana. Spend some time in this open, lonely land and know that rivers and streams run slow and muddy. Aquifers are shallow. The water from the tap tastes of too many minerals and not enough time out of the sun.
But the quality of the water off Road 75 was enough to lure people from Poplar and beyond to several bubbling springs or to the well of a family or friend.
"We had good water," Ricker says. "People used to come from town with jars and jugs and ask if they could get our water because it was so nice and cold."
When Ricker and her husband moved back to the country in 1971 after a time in Poplar, the water was still good. But less than two years later, it began to change. The oilfields had been around for 20 years at that point, and their presence was beginning to show.
The cool, clear water of Ricker's childhood turned the color of urine. Its sweet taste was replaced with a strong chemical flavor.
"When I poured water to wash dishes you could tell there was oil in it," she says. "Pretty soon after that it started to have a bad odor like rotten eggs."
Ricker reported all of this first to the tribe and then to the Indian Health Service with no reaction. So she learned to deal with her water.
She and her family hauled drinking water from town. She learned that Dawn dish soap worked best for cutting through the oily film left on her dishes. She stopped buying white clothing, towels or bedding. When her granddaughter was a toddler and started reacting to the water, Ricker hauled water for bathing as well.
This way of life became the norm. Ricker and her family were resigned to it.
"They came in and took the oil and then they left a contamination," she says. "It was really hard, but we thad no other choice. We just had to deal with it the best we could."
It took nearly 20 years after Ricker first saw the rust in her bathroom before anyone decided to do more than just deal with the water.
Deb Madison was just starting her career as the environmental manager for the Fort Peck tribe's Office of Environmental Protection in 1987 when talk of contamination reached her desk in Poplar. Water tasted salty. It didn't freeze in the wintertime. It had an odd color. Finally, a resident who lived down the road from Ricker and on the edge of the oilfields brought in a sample from his well. Salt was not the only issue.
"It was fizzy," Madison says. "And we were like 'Wow, what the hell?'"
Madison is tall and has a dominating presence. She has a degree in petroleum engineering and is married to a local cowboy. She speaks with grit and isn't prone to hesitation. So when presented with a fizzy, salty sample of drinking water, she did something about it.
Madison called the U.S. Geological Survey, which was already in the area assessing water resources for the tribe.
That sample added to mounting evidence obtained by the USGS that pointed to a major problem below the surface and launched a decade-long scientific investigation into the groundwater surrounding the oilfields. What the USGS eventually discovered was a massive groundwater contamination.
Somewhere between nine and 60 billion gallons of drinking water are tainted—more than enough to provide each person in Montana with adequate drinking water for life. "That's a lot of water," Madison says.
The contamination extends, patchwork-style, under 40 square miles of land surrounding Road 75. There are areas where the contamination is more concentrated and areas where is it diluted. There are point sources, and more diffuse sources, and as water and contaminants migrate, they seep into one another. Because of this, it is all but impossible to know how far it reaches or to pin the contamination on just one oil company or one source.
Murphy Oil Corporation first discovered oil beneath the fields east of Road 75 in early 1952. Murphy is now a multibillion-dollar international company that is primarily involved in offshore drilling. But it earned its first dollars on the Fort Peck Reservation drilling 35 active wells within the first three years. Soon after the initial discovery of oil, other companies came until the field was spotted with wells.
These oil wells ran over 5,000 feet deep. When oil is extracted from this depth, hot, extremely salty water comes with it. For millions of years, water and oil intermixed underground. At the surface when they are separated the wastewater still has remnants of oil in it and a host of dissolved minerals.
Today's regulations require oil companies to dispose of the wastewater in an environmentally safe way. In the 1950s, however, the oil companies had no such requirements.
"In the early days the water produced from the East Poplar oilfields was just dumped into open unlined pits," says Nathan Wiser, an Environmental Protection Agency scientist who worked extensively in the oilfields.