The state Department of Environmental Quality’s investigation of an incident in which toxic industrial waste was sprayed on Benzie County roads raises questions as to whether state environmental officials are failing in their charge to regulate, not just observe, the state’s oil and gas industry.
The DEQ closed an investigation into how the industrial waste — including known cancer-causing chemicals — was sprayed on Benzie County roads without finding out how it happened or how to guarantee it doesn’t happen again.
Instead, state officials say they’ll take what they learned from the spraying incident and use it to help close loopholes in state rules regulating oil-field brining process — but not until new statewide permits are issued in 2015.
That’s unacceptable. If there are “loopholes” in the law that could again allow some company to mistakenly spray toxic chemicals on rural roads, they should be addressed and closed before the next brining season, not a year or more from now.
What other business is so pressing that it prevents the DEQ from doing its job today, right now, instead of waiting? How is that acceptable?
Back in June Kalkaska-based Team Services LLC sprayed what was supposed to be oil field brine on Douglas and Fewins roads near Lake Ann. Farmer Bryan Black complained the stuff smelled more like toxic chemicals than saltwater-based brine and alerted the Benzie County Road Commission, which dealt with the DEQ. Eventually the stuff was found to contain toxins at levels 1,000 times above allowable limits.
The DEQ ordered Team Services to take soil borings in and around the roads to test for contamination. Tests weren’t conducted until October — four months after the fact — and all samples came in well below allowable thresholds for residential contact.
But the DEQ couldn’t determine what had happened
“That investigation is closed,” Janice Heuer of the DEQ’s water resources division in Cadillac, said last week. “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 supposedly regulates the levels of toxins that can be used on roads to control dust.
In this case 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.
“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 also failed to identify a specific source. Company officials have not returned calls seeking comment.
The agency also declined to conduct tests to see if contamination had been tracked into area homes from the road. Heuer said state officials conducted a scientific investigation that followed strict protocols, and testing inside homes was not called for. Homeowners likely hoped for more.
Black, who first sounded the alarm, is critical of how the incident was handled. The promise of tighter future restrictions doesn’t satisfy him; he wanted the agency to pursue a 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.”
Not only did the DEQ not seek criminal sanctions, it didn’t even levy a fine.
“There was a financial consequence as a result of this to the company,” Heuer said.
Perhaps. But that has nothing to do with sanctions the state should impose for getting it wrong in the first place.
The DEQ needs to immediately revisit its brining regulations and fix what needs fixing; waiting for 2015 is simply not good enough.