By Ken Winter
Back years ago, there used to be a joke that rural dirt roads were either sprayed just before local elections to keep the electorate happy or a township or county official lived along the road. Same held true for snow plowing.
The roads still get sprayed, but some people are beginning to ask with what? After the Traverse City Record-Eagle first reported on a road spraying complaint last month in Benzie County, west of near Traverse City, other county road commissioners are being asked the same question.
The incident started when Bryan Black, a Benzie County farmer and former oil industry welder, first raised concerns about the liquid a truck was spraying on dirt roads around his farm north of Lake Ann to the Michigan Department of Environment Quality.
“I’m pleased and I’m kind of flabbergasted,” Black told the Record-Eagle. “I would like the state to do what it is supposed to do and fine them…or make them come out and test all of our wells.”
Black was referring to Team Services, LLC of Kalkaska that was hired by the Benzie County Road Commission for $27,225 to spray over 300,000 gallons of brine on 121 miles of gravel road. The commission usually does it twice a summer, but held off the second application to learn more about the long-term effects from the waste before using Team Services again.
Brad Schaub, superintendent of the Benzie County Road commission, recently said that the county has since discovered the spraying of a toxic oil field spray took place only on two roads after completing soils and run off tests. He said it was human error because the Team Services trucks haul other liquids beyond brine. Brine is a solution of salt in water often used to de-ice or reduce freezing temperatures on roads because its freezing point is -6.0 F. In different contexts is used to preserve vegetables, fruit, fish and meat in a process know as brining.
“It still baffles me how we got it,” Schaub said, adding that a second summer spray was done by a different company, using all natural brine without some of his county’s townships participating. Several neighboring counties that used the Kalkaska-based waste hauling company have been checking checking their roads, too.
The road commission took random samples and tested the truck that carried the industrial waste only to discover that it tested for several carcinogens and toxins–benzene and toluene, as well as solvents etheyl-benzene and exylenes. While under the state limits for oil field brine, the Record-Eagle reported the benzene was above U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards limits for drinking water, while the others exceeded state limits for direct contact.
“You take an oil company that is making millions of dollars and they are dumping their wastes on the road and getting paid to do it,” Black said. “That’s a heck of a business plan.”
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials determined Team Services violated its permit by spreading oil field brine exceeding state limits. Oil brine is a by-product of oil and gas drilling and sometimes used as a cheap dust control.
Miriam Godoshian of Benzonia wrote a letter to the editor asking how many times and years toxins have been spread on roads.
“Has this stuff ever been sprayed on non-paved recreational trails, near beaches or children’s play areas?” she asked.
John Niemela, director of the County Road Association of Michigan in Lansing, said he was familiar with the Benzie County situation and said he understood it to be an anomaly and pointed more to the company, not the road commission.
“We haven’t had a lot of calls on that,” he said when asked about statewide inquiries from his 83-county membership. “Most of the road commissions that use oil field brine are pretty concise.”
He added that road commissions just automatically check how they are doing it, as the way to do it to make sure they are compliant with the law.
The Traverse City Record-Eagle editorial board criticized the state agency in an editorial, “State DEQ has bungled Benzie ‘brine’ application”
“The DEQ’s non-reaction, and its refusal to talk about what happened and how it happened, is unacceptable,” Record-Eagle editors wrote. “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 gotten.”
In a later August editorial, editors said the Grand Traverse County Road Commission was right to question its own dust control contract with the same Kalkaska company, opining whether the road commission should look into the practice of oil field on dirt roads to keep the dust down.
In a formal response to the DEQ violation notice later in August, Team Services’ Steve Kwapis wrote that it was difficult to determine how contaminated brine came to be spread between the brine application and they were notified of the problem.
Rick Henderson, field operations supervisor for the DEQ’s office of Oil, Gas, and Minerals Division told the Record-Eagle more recently it would continue to investigate the contamination that is now thought to have originated from a storage well facility at a disposal well in Manistee County that holds everything from skim brine to road brine.
In another brine situation, the state has cited Encana Oil and Gas, Inc., a Canadian energy company for spilling 300 to 400 gallons of water, brine and fracking fluids into the site of a well in Kalkaska County on July 15.
The Associated Press reported the spill was related to hydraulic fracturing, which releases natural gas trapped in deep underground rock formations. During an earlier cleaning out a water hole to prepare for production testing, water was inadvertently pumped back and leaked to the surface from a steel tank because a valve connecting it to other tanks was kept closed.
Although testing continues, the state said there was no lasting environmental damage because Encana acted quickly and effectively to clean up the site.
Ken Winter is an adjunct professor at and a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism. He is the former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame. A version of this column first appeared in domemagazine.com.