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Plume of fouled water hits Fort Peck wells

By Matthew Brown
Billings, Montana (AP) December 2010


Federal officials recently ordered three oil companies to support the monitoring of water supplies on northeastern Montana's Fort Peck Indian Reservation, after public wells were found to be tainted with salty wastewater.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued last week's order to Murphy Exploration and Production Co., Pioneer Natural Resources USA Inc. and Samson Hydrocarbons Co.

The primary source of contamination from the companies' oil production near Poplar is brine - essentially salty water with elevated levels of metals and toxins, including benzene and toluene.

The EPA and USGS have been tracking the spread of an underground plume of contamination from the East Poplar oil field for decades. This is the first time the plume has reached public wells.

The wells serve about 3,000 people in and around Poplar, the seat of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes.

“We have been monitoring this situation hoping we wouldn't find this” said EPA enforcement team leader Phil Strobel. “But we do have evidence that the leading edge of the brine has reached the wells.”

The EPA says the brine detected in the wells was at low levels and does not pose a human health risk.

The oil companies could be required to provide alternate water supplies or treatment if the risk increases.

The federal order also requires the companies to test for contamination in private wells upon the request of residents.

Strobel said there are about 50 smaller wells between the source of the contamination and the city, although they are likely at varying depths so the level of contamination remains unclear.

“If what they're experiencing is water quality that's the same as the city's, then they currently have safe water,” Strobel said. “Really what we would expect is the water would get so salty no one would want to drink it before it would reach the human health threshold.”



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