The damage done 

A Montana community braces for the next oil boom while still dealing with the devastating effects of the last one.

Page 2 of 3

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.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY KELLY CONDE
  • photo by Kelly Conde

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."

click to enlarge BIA Road 75 - PHOTO BY KELLY CONDE
  • photo by Kelly Conde
  • BIA Road 75

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.

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