The damage done 

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

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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.

click to enlarge Environmental manager Deb Madison has been monitoring the groundwater contamination since 1987. Residents still receive bottled water delivered by oil companies. - PHOTO BY KELLY CONDE
  • photo by Kelly Conde
  • Environmental manager Deb Madison has been monitoring the groundwater contamination since 1987. Residents still receive bottled water delivered by oil companies.

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.

click to enlarge In September 2012, the Rural Water System finally extended to the city of Poplar. - PHOTO BY KELLY CONDE
  • photo by Kelly Conde
  • In September 2012, the Rural Water System finally extended to the city of Poplar.

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."

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