For disadvantaged communities, pages of research bring empowerment
By Ben Young Landis
Most scientists feel a degree of satisfaction after completing and publishing a study. Having put in the time for field work or laboratory testing, and having thoughtfully analyzed the data, it feels good to attain some level of new insight.
But for people whose bodies or backyards are the topic of study, the resulting data and report offer more than mere satisfaction — they can provide an emotional lift and clarity against uncertainty and poor information.
For one community activist living in North Dakota, the decimal points and scatter plots in a recent Duke University study offered one more thing: empowerment.
Hearing Lisa DeVille speak, one feels the brunt of decades of frustrations, suspicions, and aspirations of many people all at once. DeVille is a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara (MHA) Nation, residing on the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota.
“We’ve always been here,” says DeVille, who lives in the Mandaree community and advises a number of local action organizations. “My grandmother was buried here. I was born here. My kids and my grandkids were born here. We’re not going anywhere.”
Fort Berthold happens to sit atop the Bakken Formation, a 375 million year-old, oil-rich rock layer spanning an area the size of France. Since 2007, the Bakken has become synonymous with hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling — the non-conventional oil and gas production technologies which have turned western North Dakota into a boomtown of energy fortunes, business deals, and constant construction.
As a resident, DeVille is not impressed with the progress. “I call us a third-world country, because that’s pretty much what we are today,” she says, citing the Reservation’s disparate infrastructure, education, and healthcare needs, even as lucrative drilling leases continue to be signed by local landowners. And many landowners sign leases without being educated on the potential environmental and health implications related to drilling projects.
DeVille’s latest concern is the unknown environmental impact of brine spills. Brine, known officially as “oil and gas wastewater,” is an unavoidable byproduct in the hydraulic fracturing process that contains high concentrations of metals and salts, including lead, lithium, barium, manganese, and ammonium. This toxic mixture must be transported by pipelines or tanker trucks from drilling areas to underground disposal sites. If tanker trucks overturn or pipes leak, the brine has the potential to enter local waterways and soils.
Witnessing the rapid expansion of oil drilling in Fort Berthold, DeVille suspected that brine spills were happening around the region, their impacts unaccounted for. DeVille longed for some confirmation — independent of reports by industry, state, and Tribal offices — of whether her worries were unfounded, or what contaminants might now be in her creeks and waters.
Fortunately for DeVille, Avner Vengosh does water.
“Specifically, I tell people what’s in their water,” says Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. In recent years, Vengosh and his group has focused his research on the “energy-water nexus” — how shale gas development, coal ash disposal, and other fossil fuel production and disposal activities can impact water quality and human health.
Among the Vengosh team’s research areas is the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania, another place where hydraulic fracturing has raised water quality concerns. Duke University research has shown that oil and gas wastewater produced in the Marcellus Shale has a distinctive chemical fingerprints related to the naturally occurring brines within the shale formation that is co-extracted with oil and gas — making it possible to trace any brine spills to their source.
Vengosh wondered if brine produced in the Bakken also had unique signatures that could be used to trace and confirm brine spills there. He was put in touch with the Dakota Resource Council, an advocacy organization, which asked Lisa DeVille to facilitate homeowner introductions and property access for Vengosh and his students to collect water samples in the region. Vengosh wanted to measure the metal concentrations and radioisotopes in water and soil from local creeks — at sites with known brine spills and those without — and compare them with the chemical composition of Bakken-produced wastewater.
Arriving in Fort Berthold in the summer of 2014, Vengosh saw this marvelously beautiful yet conflicted landscape for the first time.
“It’s overwhelming,” Vengosh recalls. “North Dakota has these very wide, great skies. You can see miles ahead, which makes it such a unique space. There are small streams and wetlands all over. But suddenly, when you’re out in the area of oil production, every mile you would see an oil rig, and soon there would be hundreds of rigs as far as you can see. And since they burn their excess gas here, you can see hundreds of flames everywhere in the daylight. It’s very surreal.”
Vengosh’s team, including doctoral students Nancy Lauer and Jennie Harkness and masters student Spencer Cote, sampled water, soil, and wastewater during several trips over the course of two years. As the partnership between the researchers and MHA community members continued to grow and evolve, Vengosh invited Lisa DeVille to the Duke University campus to speak about the societal impact of oil and gas development to the MHA Nation at a student symposium.
When Lauer, Harkness, and Vengosh published their findings in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, they showed that Bakken oil and gas wastewater could indeed be traced in the local environment, in particular through their radium and strontium signatures — offering an important new tool to confirm undocumented brine spills in the region. In addition, they found that sites with known brine spills exhibited elevated levels of metal contaminants, persisting even four years after spill events.
In May of 2016, it was Vengosh’s turn to be guest speaker as he traveled back to Fort Berthold to explain the research findings to residents in two town hall meetings. Noting that brine spills introduce inorganic contaminants, which can persist for decades to come, Vengosh explained that metals and radioactive materials can accumulate in the soil and in plants, even long after the spill. In fact, some spill sites in the area have already experienced vegetation die-offs. And while these spills have not affected drinking water sources and showed no apparent impacts on human health yet, he cautioned that the magnitude of continued spills could pose a wide-scale risk to the local ecology.
For Vengosh, the opportunity to translate scientific findings for the affected residents was validation for the relationship his team had built with the community — and for the importance of their role as independent scientists with no ulterior motives.
“I think it’s important to build trust, that you are coming with only a scientific agenda, and you disclose everything — who is funding you, what is your research history, that you would publish your results no matter the finding,” Vengosh says. “In this kind of ideological warzone, scientists have to walk very carefully, or otherwise risk being influenced by industry or private consultants, and lose your credibility with local partners.”
For DeVille, the journal article itself has become her “Exhibit A” at public meetings and community rallies. She brings copies of the study — five feather-light, double-sided sheets of paper — and simply hands them to officials and representatives who contest her claims on the prevalence and possible risks of brine spills.
“The most powerful thing is having that study,” DeVille says. “Everything I’ve been saying is a scientific fact now. It felt very empowering to have those facts speaking for us.”
DeVille recalls a memory from her childhood, picking plums and juneberries with her grandmother. “She would tell us there was oil down here,” DeVille says. “Since I was a little girl, she always told me to ‘get your education.’ She said one day, people are going to put papers down in front of you, and you won’t know what to do — because back in the day they would do that to her generation, and make them put an ‘X’ down to sign a contract or deed they never understood.”
To this day, DeVille has never strayed from her grandmother’s advice, working on one degree or another for the past 20 years, the latest being her bachelor’s degree in environmental science in 2015. She devotes the rest of her time guiding youth leadership groups — and continuing her advocacy for better understanding of hydraulic fracturing science.
“I really enjoy what I do, because I want to find solutions,” says DeVille. “I’m not saying get rid of oil and gas — I’m just saying there’s a right way to do this.”
Ben Young Landis is a freelance science communicator and a contributing writer for Creative Science Writing and the Thriving Earth Exchange.
Watch North Dakota television news coverage of Vengosh’s town hall meetings in Fort Berthold: