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Environmental signatures and effects of an oil and gas wastewater spill in the Williston Basin, North Dakota

February 23, 2017

Wastewaters from oil and gas development pose largely unknown risks to environmental resources. In January 2015, 11.4 M L (million liters) of wastewater (300 g/L TDS) from oil production in the Williston Basin was reported to have leaked from a pipeline, spilling into Blacktail Creek, North Dakota. Geochemical and biological samples were collected in February and June 2015 to identify geochemical signatures of spilled wastewaters as well as biological responses along a 44-km river reach. February water samples had elevated chloride (1030 mg/L) and bromide (7.8 mg/L) downstream from the spill, compared to upstream levels (11 mg/L and < 0.4 mg/L, respectively). Lithium (0.25 mg/L), boron (1.75 mg/L) and strontium (7.1 mg/L) were present downstream at 5–10 times upstream concentrations. Light hydrocarbon measurements indicated a persistent thermogenic source of methane in the stream. Semi-volatile hydrocarbons indicative of oil were not detected in filtered samples but low levels, including tetramethylbenzenes and di-methylnaphthalenes, were detected in unfiltered water samples downstream from the spill. Labile sediment-bound barium and strontium concentrations (June 2015) were higher downstream from the Spill Site. Radium activities in sediment downstream from the Spill Site were up to 15 times the upstream activities and, combined with Sr isotope ratios, suggest contributions from the pipeline fluid and support the conclusion that elevated concentrations in Blacktail Creek water are from the leaking pipeline. Results from June 2015 demonstrate the persistence of wastewater effects in Blacktail Creek several months after remediation efforts started. Aquatic health effects were observed in June 2015; fish bioassays showed only 2.5% survival at 7.1 km downstream from the spill compared to 89% at the upstream reference site. Additional potential biological impacts were indicated by estrogenic inhibition in downstream waters. Our findings demonstrate that environmental signatures from wastewater spills are persistent and create the potential for long-term environmental health effects.