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.
According to the EPA, at least 42 million gallons of wastewater were dumped into unlined pits in or around the East Poplar oilfield between 1952 and 1955.
"It seems incredible that this was allowed, but it was," Wiser says.
What is now the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation began requiring responsible wastewater disposal in 1955, but it was all but ignored. In a public hearing held in Helena in 1961, a representative for the oil company C.C. Thomas defended the 42,000 gallons of wastewater his company was dumping daily onto the ground by claiming it "was not hurting anyone."
Today's groundwater contamination proves otherwise. The potency of the wastewater dumped over 50 years ago was enough to render any well water in its presence completely undrinkable today. Yet discarded wastewater was not the only contributing factor.
An abandoned production well, inherited by Pioneer Natural Resources, also added to the mess. The well was plugged in 1984, but the cement sealing between the pipe and the earth loosened. Subsurface pressure forced oil and water back up the plugged well bore and through the gaps between cement and pipe and into the shallow groundwater. The leaks formed a concentrated plume of hot, oil-stained water. This well is located a half mile away from the residents of Road 75.
Though old wastewater caused a more widespread contamination, it was this plume that caused the most problems for the residents. And in the old East Poplar fields, abandoned wells are not monitored, so it is unknown how many more are leaking.
This is why, even with Madison and the USGS searching for answers, it took years to find any.
In a brightly lit conference room in the USGS building in Helena, Joanna Thamke flips through maps of the contamination on her laptop. Thamke has thick blonde hair, wears thin-wired glasses and speaks with a slow, careful rhythm. Within the borders of her multicolored maps lay the answers: where exactly the contamination is, whom it is affecting, who is responsible. Like Madison, Thamke has been working on the contamination since its discovery in the late 1980s. It is her research that has slowly pieced together the scientific story behind the mess.
Thamke's first step was to identify characteristics that were unique to the contamination. She found that the wastewater has high levels of chloride ion, which is what makes the water so salty, and a high concentration of dissolved solids.
This helped her track the wastewater through the aquifer. But it was Thamke's discovery of a unique chemical signature within the wastewater that allowed her to do so with precision.
The wastewater that caused the pollution came from a formation over 5,000 feet below the surface that was created more than 300 million years ago. This rock formed at the bottom of an ancient ocean. And within its chemical makeup are signatures of a different place and time. When the waters of this formation are pulled to the surface, their chemistry is unique to the surrounding environment.
Thamke, with USGS geochemist Zell Peterman, discovered that within the ancient waters of the East Poplar oilfields there exists an unusual chemical ratio that is nowhere else in the area's groundwater. Like a fingerprint at a crime scene, the presence of this isotopic combination points to the source of the contamination.
"It's perhaps one of the more sensitive tools that can detect small changes in contamination," Thamke says.
This tool is reflected in Thamke's maps. The maps display the contamination the way a handprint is displayed on those heat-sensitive T-shirts from the early 1990s. Bright pink indicates areas where the contamination is most concentrated. Then red. Then orange. Then green.
As simple as the maps look, it took time to collect the data. Years and years of drilling small wells, taking samples, analyzing. Meanwhile, the residents of Road 75 spent those years ignoring orange stains, hauling water, waiting.
In 1998, as Thamke moved further and further from the heart of the oilfields only to discover more and more contaminated water, the residents of Road 75 took matters into their own hands.
Rene Martell works as an attorney for the tribe. He is a quiet man with shaggy hair and big glasses. Martell is married to Helen Ricker's sister and lives up the road. Like Ricker, Martell and his wife struggled with their water for years. Martell found that the orange tint of the water clung to his skin long after he finished showering.
"You'd start seeing it on your fingernails and your legs," Martell says.
Through his job, Martell knew of a Bozeman law firm that might take on a water contamination case. After contacting the Goetz law firm, Martell went door-to-door, to the houses on Road 75.
"I contacted the families on the road and asked if they would be interested in doing something about the water. It kind of took off from there," Martell says.
Fourteen families agreed to take action and in 1998, they filed a federal lawsuit against three oil companies: Murphy Exploration and Production company, Pioneer Natural Resources, and Samson Hydrocarbons. The plaintiffs alleged that the oil companies had destroyed the value of their property and requested an alternative source of drinking water.
"You always have to put the money part in," Martell says. "This was a contingency lawsuit so the attorneys would get paid if we won. But what we wanted was a (water) pipeline."
As the suit was underway, a toxicologist, invited by Deb Madison, made a discovery that upped the ante.
"We found benzene," Madison says. "Well, benzene kind of changed everything because now we definitely had a human health effect."
Significant exposure to benzene has been linked to various types of cancer. Someone with benzene in their tap water can be exposed to it in many different ways because it exists as both a liquid and a gas. They can ingest it or inhale it. It can soak through their skin when they shower or wash their hands.
Most of those living off Road 75 had quit drinking their well water long before EPA found benzene. Yet they had little choice but to use it for washing clothes and themselves. They were still exposed to it daily. For how long, no one is sure.
Though the incidents of cancer seem abnormally high among the residents—Ricker suffered from breast cancer, as did her sister, and three of her neighbors—so many environmental factors can cause cancer that there is no way to prove it was from the contamination. But neither has there been an investigation in the area to look specifically for health problems related to benzene exposure.
Still, the discovery of benzene in the groundwater changed everything. A year after the residents filed their lawsuit, the EPA administered an emergency order under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The same oil companies that were being sued were now required by the order to provide a gallon of drinking water per person, per day, to 23 families living off Road 75.
According to Martell, the EPA's involvement bolstered the families' lawsuit.
"It gave us a big hammer," Martell says. "Oil companies had to deal with our lawsuit and had to deal with EPA's federal action. It just emphasized that the EPA wasn't going away and neither were we."
It took another two years, but in 2002, the families finally reached a settlement with the oil companies. The companies agreed to continue to provide the families with bottled water, but more importantly they agreed to build a pipeline connecting the affected homes to the city of Poplar's water supply. The companies also agreed to pay each family around $63,000 in damages plus another $5,000 to replace the pipes in their houses, which were corroded by the excessively salty water.
Water would continue to be delivered to all the families for 10 years or until they had safe, reliable drinking water running from their faucets.
After more than 20 years of stress, the residents of Road 75 could do their laundry, wash their dishes and stand under hot running water without the worry of side effects. Being connected to Poplar's supply seemed to have finally solved their water problems.
Deb Madison speeds north along a paved road that runs parallel to the East Poplar oilfields. To the west, snow-covered fields are dotted with the dark profiles of oil wells. Madison slows and turns down an unsigned dirt road that leads into the heart of the oilfields.
Madison knows her way around the rutted roads that cut through the fields. Along with representing the tribe through the years of scientific investigation and mitigation surrounding the pollution, Madison oversees all injection well permits and monitoring on the reservation. There isn't much about the issue that Madison isn't involved in. Even so, she says as she navigates the car past a cluster of nodding well pumps, the call from the Poplar dialysis center complaining of dirty water came as a surprise.
In summer 2009, employees of the Verne E. Gibbs dialysis center notice a change in Poplar's water. The center's high-tech purification system clogged easily. Filters had to be changed every couple of days rather than monthly. And when they were changed, they came out looking like they had been dipped in chocolate pudding. When the problem didn't cease, the center called Madison.
It was obvious that the contamination would eventually seep the three miles to Poplar. All water paths, above and below ground, ran towards the three municipal wells that supplied Poplar with drinking water. But it was nearly impossible to predict the rate the contamination was moving with complete accuracy. Though the terrain around Poplar is a monotony of rolling hills and lazy rivers, the earth beneath the surface is extremely complex. Still, most predictions were optimistically far in the future.
Madison knew the contamination had reached Poplar sooner than anyone expected when she tested the water from the dialysis center and found it contained high levels of chloride, a contamination indicator.
In December 2010, shortly after Madison's discovery, the EPA issued another order naming the same three oil companies responsible. The companies were required to sample Poplar's water supply monthly, and, depending on the level of contamination, provide treated or bottled water to the residents of Poplar and submit an aquifer remediation plan.
The companies immediately appealed the order, stating that there was no evidence to prove that the contamination had reached Poplar.
Michael Jacobs, geologist for Pioneer Natural Resources, says, "There is no evidence to date to show the city wells have or will ever be impacted by the contamination. The contamination has not found its way to Poplar's water supply wells."
Murphy Exploration and Production and Samson Hydrocarbons declined to comment for this story.
The USGS and the EPA say the evidence was in the water. Poplar's water contained all the signs of having oil-produced wastewater in it: high chloride levels, high total dissolved solids concentration and the presence of the unique chemical combination.
There was one glaring problem: even if the companies agreed to pay the city to find a new water source, all the clean groundwater was directly in the path of the moving contamination.
Poplar needed to extend far beyond the reach of the contamination for a water source, an endeavor that would take more money than the oil companies would pay and more time than the contamination was going to give it.
To Tom Escarcega, the waters of the Fort Peck reservation are sick—not only those touched by the East Poplar oil activity, but all water running beneath the northeastern corner of Montana.
"The groundwater is pretty much contaminated in this area," says Escarcega, who used to work as the tribe's water resources administrator. "You can't drink it, and some of the time you can't even cook with it. It's pretty bad."
Due to the shallow aquifer, even without the oil activity the water is tainted by agricultural practices. Eighty percent of private water supplies on the reservation have nitrate levels above safe drinking water standards. In 1992, Escarcega sought to change this by flying with the tribal chairman to Billings to speak with the Bureau of Reclamation about funding a water treatment plant.
Then Montana U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns heard about the proposal and decided to make the project regional, and in 1994 the first funds were secured. The ultimate goal of the project, dubbed the Fort Peck Reservation Rural Water System, is to provide treated water from the Missouri River to the entire northeast corner of Montana. For Escarcega, who is now the Rural Water System's project manager, it is a way to cleanse the sick waters of the reservation.
"With the treatment plant we are trying to re-purify, almost like a dialysis," Escarcega says.
To date, Congress has provided the Rural Water System with more than $300 million. In August 2012, the large pumps in the Missouri River were switched on and the first drops ran the two miles to the newly built Rural Water treatment plant, a huge, twinkling box rooted on the side of the road between Poplar and the nearby town of Wolf Point.
Inside the plant, layers of filtration systems and cleansing processes, all gravity fed, turned the muddy waters of the Missouri into something clean and sweet. The bubbling water spoke of new prospects.
To Nathan Wiser of the EPA, it was a way out. As science was moving litigation between the EPA and the oil companies toward mediation, the Rural Water System flickered as a solution.
In March 2012, the companies came to an agreement. They would pay $320,000 to connect the city of Poplar to the Rural Water system. The companies were no longer required to submit a clean-up plan. On top of saving Poplar from contaminated water, the Rural Water system, it seems, would set the oil companies free of any obligation for remediation.
In September 2012, just one month after the water treatment plant opened and at least three years after the fingers of the contamination first touched Poplar's water supply, the entire city was connected to the Rural Water line. Clean water ran from faucets again. Poplar's water was saved.
But the water line couldn't fix everything.
Because of the contamination, there is an embargo on new water well permits in the area. Much of the land north of Poplar is held in trust by the federal government for the Fort Peck affiliated tribes. Without water, this land is all but uninhabitable.
For this reason, the Fort Peck tribal council believes that the $320,000 settlement was not nearly enough to pay for the damage the oil companies caused.
"We still have the water plume there," Fort Peck Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure says. "It has destroyed our groundwater; $320,000 isn't going to cover that."
And it seems nothing will fix the problems along Road 75.
On a cold morning last January, Shane Halverson, the Public Works director for the City of Poplar, received a call from someone living off Road 75. They had no running water. Again. Halverson left to check the pipeline. That morning's problem had a simple fix: a switch needed to be turned on. Other days, the fix isn't so easy.
Construction of the 10-mile water pipeline was completed in 2005. But the relief felt by those living off Road 75, those who had been living on bottled water for so long, was short-lived. Within a year of its completion, the line started breaking regularly—between 20 and 30 times annually.
The problem was different every time. The plastic line would freeze and break, or pressure from the water pump would force a leak. With each break, most of the families on the line went without running water. Some breaks took days to fix, others took weeks. Eight years later, the pipeline still has problems. The country residents now live with a nagging uncertainty. They are never sure when they will have water and when they will not.
Halverson blames the pipeline problems on its construction. Before working for the city, he worked as a quality-assurance engineer and in pipeline construction.
"The quality assurance was poor to say the least," Halverson says.
According to Halverson, the quality assurance report noted various problems in construction that were never addressed. Mistakes were made, but never corrected. The pipeline was haphazardly put into the ground. It wasn't bedded properly. It wasn't tested for weaknesses.
"There are places out there that they put damaged pipe in the ground. It was noted in the quality report that the pipe was damaged and they put it in anyway," Halverson says. "And it's never going to be right. That's the thing about putting pipe in the ground. If you don't do it right the first time, you are always going to have trouble with it. Always, always, always."
The same morning Halverson was out fixing the line again, Helen Ricker was readjusting her morning schedule to the whim of her faucet. Though the 10-year warranty on the settlement made with the oil companies has expired, the companies still deliver bottled water to all houses–a sign that nothing is completely fixed. On this morning, Ricker took water from one of the delivered five-gallon jugs and heated it on the stove. It would be enough for her granddaughter to take a sponge bath before high school.
There is an ongoing search for federal funds to rebuild that pipeline after all efforts to force the oil companies to do it failed. Maybe within two years, or three, reconstruction can begin. But for now, the people on Road 75 are stuck. They have used up all their options.
Ricker feels duped.
"The non-Indians came in here, drilled for the oil and we were told that it would be taken care of correctly and cleaned up correctly and we believed that," she says.
No matter what benefits another oil boom would bring to the reservation, no matter what new regulations and technology exist to ensure that the land remains unscarred, Ricker hopes that the oil boom that is swarming North Dakota won't make its way west.
"All this talk on the oil boom, as far as I'm concerned they can lock our highways up," Ricker says. "I don't want that coming in on my land. Not after what we've seen historically."
Ricker is one of few who feel this way. The Bakken oil reserve brings the prospect of new jobs and opportunity to a land where there are few. Many in the area welcome that, though those still dealing with the scars of the last boom remain wary.
"It's a kind of a two-edged sword," Deb Madison says. "It will be great to have money flowing and jobs, but it's going to be a challenge to stay ahead of it. Because it's fast and furious and it doesn't wait for anybody."