TRAVERSE CITY — The company that spread toxic oil-field brine classified as industrial waste on Benzie County roads doesn’t know how it happened and their failure to come up with answers could lead to new statewide regulations.
Kalkaska-based Team Services LLC officials formally responded to a notice from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that they violated state law when they spread toxic waste on two roads near Lake Ann.
Team Services’ Steve Kwapis wrote in a letter to the DEQ that it is “difficult to determine” how contaminated brine came to be spread because of the time that elapsed between the brine application and when they were notified of the problem.
“Either human error or a contaminated source well are the most likely causes,” Kwapis wrote.
Brine, or saltwater, is a byproduct of oil and gas drilling and can contain harmful hydrocarbon contaminants that are both toxic and known carcinogens. The state sets limits on the levels of toxins that can be used on roads for dust control.
Brine applied by Team Services this year to at least two dirt roads tested a thousand times above allowable limits for toxins and caused concerns among local residents about water well contamination and other potential health risks.
The bad brine came from a storage facility at a disposal well in Manistee County that has seven connected storage tanks that hold everything from skim oil to road brine.
Contamination could have occurred anywhere from one of the originating wells to the storage facility or one of the transporting trucks, DEQ officials said.
DEQ officials continue to investigate and expect to narrow the possible scenarios that caused the incident, but acknowledged they may never determine the exact cause.
“What makes it important is if (Team Services) could put their finger on it they could make sure it doesn’t happen again, but having loose ends makes it a little more difficult,” said Janice Heuer of the DEQ’s water resources division in Cadillac. “We want to tie those loose ends up.”
Determining an exact cause unique to Team Services likely would result in a DEQ order that only affects that company, officials said.
Without an identified cause DEQ officials said they would consider making permit changes to address all possible scenarios that led to the recent brining incident. Because the entire industry operates under one general discharge permit, all road brining operations would be impacted.
“Whatever those final scenarios are, we’ll look at actions to prevent it or mitigate it,” said Rick Henderson, field operations supervisor for the DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas, and Minerals division. “We don’t want it to occur again, that’s for sure.”
Kwapis wrote that Team Services is evaluating changes to a valve system at the tank farm to eliminate the potential for cross contamination. The company also would create more storage for road brine to allow the company to run a second test on the stored salt water.
Team Services also will analyze the possibility of installing a carbon filtering system to eliminate hydrocarbons from the brine.
The DEQ often gets complaints about road brine that smells of oil and Heuer said installing a filtering system on the truck where the brine is pumped out would be her preferred alternative for the industry.
“There are all of these activities for the brine before it reaches the road,” Heuer said. “If someone along the way makes an error, the last step would be that filter control on the truck itself.”
But a regulation change will require a broader discussion with other agencies and divisions within the DEQ before any final decision is reached, Hauer said.
Bryan Black, a Lake Ann farmer who alerted the Benzie County Road Commission to the bad brine, said he does’t believe it should be that difficult to figure out the cause. He considers the DEQ’s actions to date just a “slap on the hand” for Team Services.
“Anything that can be done to prevent this from happening in the future is great, but with the results we’ve had so far, I’m not holding my breath,” Black said.