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.
The state sets limits on the levels of toxins that can be used on roads, but brine applied by Team Services this year to at least two dirt roads near Lake Ann in Benzie County tested a thousand times above allowable limits for toxins.
In some ways, the DEQ's Heuer said, that incident could serve a public purpose. Benzie County Road Commission officials took a random sample of liquid from the truck prior to road application -- though test results came in afterward -- which subsequently provided good data for the road commission and state regulators.
"This is an opportunity to speak with the industry and resolve some of the problems with (brining)," Heuer said.
DEQ and Team Services officials said they can't figure out exactly where the toxic liquid originated. The liquid that ended up on Benzie County roads was pumped from a storage tank in Manistee County, but public records show all of the wells where the brine came from were tested and approved for brine in 2013.
Bryan Black, a Lake Ann farmer, discovered and reported the Benzie brining incident in June. He said he and his wife Karla aren't satisfied with the state's probe, and they want someone to pay for continued testing of water wells on affected properties, among other concerns. Officials acknowledged that roughly 3,000 gallons of toxic liquid were spread on dirt roads near their property, but Black questions whether that figure should be higher, since the tanker trucks hold more than 6,000 gallons.
They also want to know what happened to the rest of the brine in the Manistee County storage tank that holds 8,000 gallons.
Rick Henderson, field operations supervisor for the DEQ's Office of Oil, Gas, and Minerals division, said the quick part of the investigation is over and remaining tasks will take time to complete.
Team Services has until month's end to determine how it spread toxic waste on public roads and how to prevent it from happening again. Heuer and Henderson both said company officials are cooperating, but in a recent meeting said they still did not have answers.
The company discontinued brining area dirt roads while they investigate, Heuer said.
Grand Traverse County Road Commission officials last week said they'll drop Team Services as the applicator of dirt road brines. Team Services officials have not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Incidents focus attention on fracking, state oversight
Anti-fracking groups are closely following the Benzie County incident and cite it as another example of the state's alleged lack of industry oversight, particularly since it was discovered that fracking fluids were applied to roads in Cheboygan and Kalkaska counties in 2012. State regulators did not publicly report those incidents.
Hydraulic fracturing, widely known as “fracking,” is a relatively new process in Michigan. Huge volumes of water laced with chemicals and sand are pumped at high pressure into wells to release natural gas trapped in deep underground rock formations.
State regulations make no distinction between brine from standard wells or fracked wells, the latter of which may feature a mix of corrosive and toxic chemicals in water that flows back to the surface.
State records show Encana Oil and Gas Inc. pumped 8.46 million gallons of what it terms "slick" or chemically treated fresh water, 5.3 million pounds of sand, and 90,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid down one Kalkaska County well. In general, from 10 percent to 20 percent of that water initially flows back to the surface, Henderson said. After that, the water and chemical mixture continues to flow back with the gas, but after melding underground with other materials it comes back as chemically altered salt water.
Team Services applied in the spring of 2012 for permission to apply brine to area roads from two fracked wells. Ray Vugrinovich, the DEQ's chief geologist in Lansing, granted permission for both applications.
Vugrinovich said he knew the wells were supposed to be fracked, but that designation made no difference in his decision because state regulations don't differentiate between methods used to draw gas from wells.
Regulators in northern Michigan had a different opinion, though, state documents show. They told area environmentalists the previous year the flow-back water from fracking operations would be disposed of only at approved injection wells.
Henderson said he wasn't aware the state had permitted the two fractured wells for road brine applications. When a local environmentalist reported fracking fluid had been applied to Sunset Trail in Kalkaska County, Henderson stuck a plug back in the dike.
In June 2012 he issued a moratorium on the use of fracking flow-back water as brine for road ice melting and dust control.
The chemical composition of industrial fracking fluid is considered proprietary and state officials won't fully disclose the recipe. Most of the chemical types, but not their concentrations, are posted online by the state after wells are drilled.
"To be on the safe side, we wanted to make sure we had all of the chemistry that was involved in that brine to make sure it is safe," Henderson said. "We've just extended that moratorium for another year ... as we continue to test these wells."
The DEQ tested the roads where the flow-back water had been applied and the tanks where it had been stored for four different chemical agents it knows are used in the fracking fluid and found all the levels within acceptable limits.
But the DEQ failed to publicly share its knowledge that roads in Cheboygan County also were brined with fracking flow-back water.
Public in the dark
Beemon, of the anti-fracking group, said she doesn't believe DEQ officials intentionally hid the information, but no one from the public knew enough to ask the question.
Minutes from an October 2012 Cheboygan County Road Commission meeting indicate county officials weren't aware of what went on their roads.
Cheboygan Road Commission Manager Michael Roper said he questioned Team Services' representatives, whom he described as "honest" about the use of fracking fluid.
"They said none of the fracking flow-back fluid was shipped to Cheboygan County and if it had come to Cheboygan County it was approved by DEQ," Roper told his board in October 2012, according to the board minutes.
It wasn't until anti-fracking groups received their public records request in December 2012 that they realized Team Services had applied another 19,000 gallons of fracking liquid onto Cheboygan County roads and into a private campground.
Nic Clark is Michigan director for environmentalist group Clean Water Action. He's followed the fracking fluid brining incident in Kalkaska County because he hails from Torch Lake and his family deer camp is off of Sunset Trail, where more than 21,000 gallons of fracking flow-back fluid were applied on less than five miles of road in the spring of 2012.
"I have deep personal concerns about the issue," Clark said. "There are so many areas where the regulations for fracking could be improved and many other areas that none exist."
Legislation for a moratorium and study of fracking introduced in the state legislature in 2011 failed to go anywhere. Clark said environmental groups are working to get the legislation reintroduced this year.