Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 3, 2014

Newsmakers: State closes probe into brine sprayed on Benzie roads

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — EDITOR’S NOTE: Newsmakers 2013 profiles people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region during the past year.

TRAVERSE CITY — State officials never determined how toxic industrial waste ended up being sprayed on Benzie County roads as brine, but said their investigation will allow them to close loopholes in the oil-field brining process when they issue new statewide permits in 2015.

Brine applied by Kalkaska-based Team Services LLC on June 4, 2013, to Douglas and Fewins roads in the Lake Ann area tested 1,000 times above allowable limits for toxins and caused concerns among residents about water well contamination and other potential health risks.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality required Team Services to take soil borings in and around the roads to test for contamination. Tests were conducted in October, and all samples came in well below allowable thresholds for residential contact.

“That investigation is closed,” said Janice Heuer of the DEQ’s water resources division in Cadillac. “We weren’t able to identify the exact cause, but we were able to identify pathways. We feel the constructive resolution is to strengthen the permit in 2015.”

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 area road commissions use on roads for dust control.

The problem in this case was lag time, Heuer said. The Benzie County Road Commission took random samples of the brine before it was applied, but it was almost a month before they received test results and notified the DEQ. Heuer previously said she doubted this was the first time brine exceeded state thresholds, but the hydrocarbons volatilize, or evaporate quickly into the air.

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. DEQ officials reviewed logs but there was nothing left to test by the time they were notified of the problem.

“We just went through all the different pathways that were possible and we couldn’t confirm any of them so we don’t really know,” said Rick Henderson, field operations supervisor for the DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas, and Minerals division.

Team Services in its report to the DEQ also failed to identify a specific source. Company officials have not returned calls seeking comment.

The promise of tighter restrictions on the use of oil-field brine in the future didn’t satisfy Bryan Black, a Lake Ann farmer who alerted the Benzie County Road Commission to the bad brine. Black was critical of the DEQ’s investigation and wanted the agency to pursue criminal prosecution of Team Services.

“The DEQ basically said there was not criminal intent,” Black said. “It really looks like the investigation and the follow-up on their part was extremely shoddy.”

Black said the DEQ should have tested area houses to see if any contamination had been tracked in from the roads.

Heuer said state officials conducted a scientific investigation that followed strict protocols. Testing inside homes was not called for in this specific situation because of how quickly the contaminants volatilize into the air.

State officials did not fine Team Services, but Heuer noted the company had to pay for expensive follow-up testing.

“There was a financial consequence as a result of this to the company,” Heuer said.