TRAVERSE CITY — A company accused of spreading toxic industrial waste on Benzie County roads previously spread over 40,000 gallons of brine on roads in two other northern Michigan counties that contained chemicals from deep injection, hydraulically fractured wells.
A June incident in Benzie is the third such toxic brine-spraying case tied to Kalkaska-based Team Services LLC since 2012, and prompted some area environmental groups to question state environmental regulators' ability to properly regulate the area's burgeoning oil and gas industry.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has a dual role of regulating an industry it also is expected to promote, contends Jo Anne Beemon of Don't Frack Michigan, one of three groups that used open records laws to obtain hundreds of pages of public documents related to brining incidents in Kalkaska and Cheboygan counties in 2012.
"You should not trust the DEQ to protect human health because that's not their job," said Beemon, of Charlevoix, a former county drain commissioner. "Their job is to enforce the rules ... and the rules have not kept up with the technology."
DEQ officials are quick to remind critics that the agency attempted to ban the use of oil-field brines as an ice melting and dust control agent in the 1980s, but various county road commissions sued to block that effort. Officials said they regularly receive complaints about potentially contaminated road-applied brine solutions, but the hazardous agents can quickly volatilize, or evaporate.
"I believe it is an industry-wide problem," said Janice Heuer, of the DEQ's water resources division in Cadillac. "The opportunity for error is all over the place."
Opportunity to 'resolve' problems
Brine, or saltwater, is a byproduct of oil and gas drilling and can contain harmful hydrocarbon contaminants that are both toxic and known carcinogens. DEQ officials in 2012 approved permits for more than 100 wells that allowed their operators to sell waste water for road brine applications, including 41 in Kalkaska and Grand Traverse counties.