Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 4, 2013

Editorial: DEQ bungled Benzie 'brine' application


Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — So what if some firm did somethingreally, really bad to the local environment, like spread liquid industrial waste containing known carcinogens on rural roads that will possibly - almost certainly - leach into farm fields and drinking water wells.

Big trouble from the state, right? Not in Michigan. Or in Benzie County, at least.

Kalkaska-based oil field company Team Services LLC spread 300,000 gallons of oil field brine on 121 miles of Benzie County roads that testing has revealed exceeded state limits for Benzene, Toluene, and other toxins; in some cases the levels were 1,000 times more than the law allows.

Tests showed benzene, a known carcinogen, at 28,000 micrograms per liter; toluene, a toxin, came in at 1 million micrograms per liter; and the solvents ethylbenzene and xylenes tested at 130,000 and 750,000 micrograms per liter, respectively.

The state limit for oil field brine is 1,000 micrograms per liter for each component. Benzene was under the state limit for direct contact, but above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limit for drinking water, which is 5 micrograms per liter.

Incredibly, though, the state Department of Environmental Quality gave Team Services LLC a relative slap on the wrist, if that. The DEQ told the company to do a self-investigation and clean up the mess. And, by the way, don’t do it again. And then DNR officials refused to talk about it.

Rick Henderson, a supervisor for the DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals, declined comment and referred all questions to a DEQ spokesman who did not return calls.

The DEQ did tell Team Services to provide a work plan to show how the company will test roads to determine if they no longer pose a threat to groundwater or direct contact.

But given the DEQ’s laissez faire attitude so far, what will happen if that testing shows the chemicals do, indeed pose a threat to groundwater or to direct contact. And how is it that Team Services is being allowed to do the testing in the first place? And who will trust that testing?

Benzie County farmer Bryan Black, a former oil industry welder who first raised concerns about the liquid a truck sprayed on dirt roads around his farm north of Lake Ann, said that when he smelled the stuff he knew immediately that it wasn’t brine.

“If I had smelled that in a refinery I used to work in, they would have cleared us out for fear of explosion,” he said.

When it rained later in the day, the “brine” foamed, he said. “This isn’t brine.”

Black said he was “flabbergasted” by the DEQ’s reaction.

“I would like the state to do what it is supposed to do and fine them ... or make them come out here and test all of our wells,” he said.

That’s the minimum Benzie County officials must demand.

Road Commission engineer/manager Heather Jamison said the commission — which paid for the brine application — hasn’t decided what action it will take beyond holding off on any more brine applications. She said commissioners want to know the long-term effects of the stuff.

“We are concerned mostly because there are a lot of unknowns still,” she said.

That’s an understatement. At the least, the county must demand that the DEQ take this thing seriously and order independent testing (at Team Services’ expense), including testing local drinking wells for years to come to ensure the chemicals haven’t made their way into drinking water.

The DEQ’s non-reaction, and its refusal to talk about what happened and how it happened, is unacceptable. This is their job; simply walking away can’t be an option.

A lot of people think the DEQ already plays patsy to the oil and gas industry and this looks like more of the same. State lawmakers need to step up and demand a lot more from the DEQ than Benzie has gotten so far.

This cannot be the end of this. More testing must be done, drinking wells must be monitored, some kind of remediation must be considered, land and homeowners must be compensated for damage to their property.

What has happened so far can only be a first step.