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Montana Salinity Control Association studies water in oil country wells

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

The Montana Salinity Control Association will be involved in a multi-agency state project to determine baseline water quality in oil country.

“For domestic and livestock wells, what is the water quality today? Find out what the constituents are and what is your current water quality,” says Jane Holzer, director of the association that is more known for tackling salinity problems in soils. “Down the road, if it changes, we can look at the chemistry and we can decide if it had an impact from oil production — good or bad.”

Eight county conservation districts along the North Dakota border will be eligible to apply for funds, available on a first-come, first-served basis. Several state agencies within the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation have decided on about 25 constituents. It has to be a well currently in use — whether a shallow sand point or a deep well.

The $300,000 study was approved as a grant from the 2013 Legislature. Conservation districts will be able to service 50 wells per county. In areas around Sidney, Mont., where there’s been considerable oil production for several years, there already may be some problems, Holzer says. “There could be, we don’t know. That’s the point.”

The tests will be a one-time baseline project. The tests, for less than $400 each, will run a suite of 20 to 30 items — no herbicides but organic and inorganic chemicals.

“If you are drinking that water in your home, or if it’s important to your livestock operation, what is the quality, and what does that mean to you?” In November and December 2012, the agency completed a pilot project on 15 wells each in Fergus and Petroleum counties in Montana.

“We’re encouraging it because it can help protect the oil and gas industry,” Holzer says. “You can’t just say if the water becomes salty, it tastes salty, it must be the oil well I can see out my back door. That may not have anything to do with it. It may be the land use — the cropping system that’s creating a saline seep. Or it could be a disposal pond.”

Concerns about fracking exist, but with new construction methods, it might be safe, Holzer says. The testing would prove that. ___

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