Residents Say DEQ Too Lax Over Toxic Brine Incident

Aug 12, 2013

Earlier this summer, a Kalkaska company spread industrial waste on roads in Benzie County. The toxic contaminants were mixed with brine from oil wells that is used to keep down dust on gravel roads.

The pollutants tested way above what’s allowed for human contact. And some residents think the DEQ is treating the oil and gas industry with kid gloves.

Set of Coincidences

If Bryan Black hadn’t been out tending his garden one morning in early June, it’s likely nobody would even know about the toxic chemicals spread on nearby roads.

Black saw a tanker truck go by and then pull off the highway and onto a dirt road just down from where he lives. When he later saw the truck go by again, he hopped in his pick-up and followed it. Black had worked in refineries in Houston and Galveston. So he knew the stuff soaking into Douglas Road wasn’t just salty water or brine.

It had a pungent odor that burned his nose, Black says. “It smells like a combination of insecticide, gasoline, diesel oil and sulfur.” He says after he and his wife checked another nearby road they both had dull headaches for the rest of the evening.

They reported the incident to the Benzie County Road Commission which just happened to have a sample from the contaminated load.

Not Safe for Human Contact

The sample contained several chemicals, far exceeding levels for direct human contact, including benzene, a known carcinogen.

“Anybody coming into contact with it with bare feet, with their hands, breathing, inhaling dust, riding bicycles, children playing in these areas, all would be of great concern,” saysChris Grobbel, an independent environmental investigator who used to track hazardous spills for the state.

Nobody is saying there was direct human contact in this instance. The DEQ sent out people to take a look a few days later. But a rainstorm had washed away any visible sign of oil and the odor was gone.

Rick Henderson, field supervisor for the DEQ’s oil and gas section, says the brine came from storage tanks in northern Manistee County. Apparently, contaminants somehow got into one of the brine tanks. He paints the incident as a slip-up.

“For the most part, I think we do a good job at regulating this practice and especially since everything is tested ahead of time. This is a pretty isolated incident,” Henderson says.  

The tanks are owned by Team Services, which is supposed to test the brine from each well before spreading it on roads. The DEQ cited the company and told it to explain what happened and how it would fix the problems.

Team Services did not respond to IPR’s requests for comment.

DEQ Relies on Self Reporting

No matter what happened, Chris Grobbel thinks the truck drivers ought to have been able to tell by the smell that something wasn’t right. As a former regulator, he doesn’t see the incident as a fluke.

And he says DEQ relies too much on the industry to self report and self monitor. He thinks these incidents will continue to happen despite the DEQ’s much touted regulations.

“Ironically, we’ve got regulations that allow for this kind of thing to occur and unfortunately, in my assessment, the state is often asleep at the wheel,” Grobbel says.

Bryan Black trucks the produce from his half-acre garden to nearby farmer’s markets several times a week. And he recognizes that by speaking out about toxic chemicals spread on roads near his place he may be undercutting his own business.

“Well, I think it’s more important for us to get the word out and get resolution to this so this doesn’t happen again,” Black says. He and his wife want to know if the toxic stuff will end up in their drinking water. And they want the company that spread the brine to pay for testing their well.

“Carcinogens don’t go away. They stay and they build over a period of time. So you’re looking at children and grandchildren decades down the road that could be affected by cancers, cysts, things like that,” Black says.

Again, there’s been no testing of groundwater yet to see if it contains industrial chemicals.

Dust Control

John Nuskie thinks the chances are pretty remote that contaminants will reach his water well. He’s a neighbor of Bryan Black’s and he also happens to be chair of the Benzie County Road Commission.

He says that on these rural dirt roads most people don’t have central air conditioning and keep their windows open in summer. So it doesn’t take long for road dust to cover everything in the house.

And he’s heard from as many people who are pleased with the road brine as from those who are upset about it. “Now that shows you where people’s priorities are. It’s OK to drink some poison if you don’t know you’re drinking it but they don’t want to breathe dust particles,” Nuskie says.

If there’s a better alternative to oil and gas brine for treating dusty roads he says he’d be all for it.


Notes: The Department of Natural Resources tried to stop the practice of using brine from oil and gas wells to keep down dust on roads in the mid-1980’s. Several county road commissions sued the state and are able to continue the practice today under court ordered limitations.

The DEQ says it could respond more quickly if citizens report a suspected chemical spill directly to their pollution emergency hotline: 800-292-4706.