HONOR — Oil field brine laced with toxic petroleum byproducts recently were sprayed on some Benzie County roads, tests showed, an application contracted by the Benzie County Road Commission as a means to control dust on dirt roads.
Residents who complained about the spray's odor now worry about health hazards and what the chemicals might do to their water wells and the nearby Platte River. Tests indicated the presence of toxins, and a state agency is investigating.
Bryan Black was the first to question the origin of liquid sprayed by a tanker on Douglas Road near his Lake Ann farm on June 4. Black, who's owned the farm for about two years, said neighbors told him the liquid was just brine, a saltwater solution used to control dust.
But Black spent years working in oil refineries and said the stuff sprayed on his road didn't smell like brine.
"If I had smelled that in a refinery I used to work in, they would have cleared us out for fear of explosion," Black said. "When it rained later that day it foamed on the road. This isn't brine."
Oil field brine is a byproduct of oil and gas drilling, and about a dozen counties in Michigan that are permitted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality use it as a cheap dust control agent. The state attempted to phase out the use of oil field brine in the 1980s over concerns about public health and the potential for contamination of ground and surface waters, but cost-conscious county road commissions held firm.
The brine is supposed to come from approved wells with annual testing to ensure contaminants are within certain limits state officials consider safe.
Black's wife complained in a telephone call to the road commission and Black discussed it with his neighbor, John Nuskie, chairman of the Benzie Road Commission board.
"I trust the olfactory senses of my neighbor," Nuske said. "Believe you me, I'm just as concerned as my neighbor, Mr. Black. Because given awhile, we will be drinking that stuff. It will be in our wells."
Heather Jamison, Benzie Road Commission manager, said agency officials take random samples each year for testing as part of their quality assurance program. All samples came back within acceptable tolerances, except for recent loads applied by Kalkaska-based TEAM Services LLC on roads around Black's farm. Those tests showed several of the components were above DEQ-set tolerance levels for toxins, she said.
Those components included benzene, a known carcinogen, and toluene, a toxic industrial solvent.
Jamison said the road commission hasn't received a direct explanation from Team Services about what happened. She turned test results over to the DEQ.
"Our role is pretty much out of it now," Jamison said.
Team Services did not return calls seeking comment.
The findings confirmed Black's suspicions.
"These are very, very bad chemicals, known carcinogens, and the stuff never goes away," Black said. "They dumped three tanker trucks of it within a mile of my home. What do we do if gets down into the well water? How do I irrigate my crops?"
Black said he's also concerned for his neighbors and their children. He worries about contaminated road dust being tracked into homes.
Rick Henderson, a field operations supervisor for the DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals, said the DEQ will conduct a through investigation, and if determines there are any health risks "we will take appropriate action."
Henderson said the agency has an open investigation and he declined to discuss details.
Grand Traverse County also uses oil field brine from Team Services for dust control. The county tests every load, but just for the level of salt, said Jim Cook, road commission manager.
"The guys say some batches smell like oil and others don't," Cook said.