Why Saltwater Disposal Wells Are So Dangerous

Saltwater Disposal WellsDeaths and severe injuries from fires and explosions at oil fields in North Dakota are all too common. Many occur at saltwater disposal sites.

In one recently reported explosion north of Alexander on US 85 in McKenzie County, several tanks were reported to have exploded (the cause is unknown). According to Inforum, the 40-year-old victim was “engulfed in flames” and suffered second- and third-degree burns when a large explosion occurred while he was unloading a truck at the site. The victim ran to some soft snow which seems to have helped save him, especially since North Dakota doesn’t have its own burn center; the victim had to be transported out of state to get the help he needed. He was placed into a medically induced coma, but he’s awake and talking now. It’s likely he’ll need multiple surgeries to treat his burns.

In January 2019, an explosion occurred at an oil field saltwater disposal site near Watford City at a White Owl Energy Services site. According to AP News, no one got hurt – this time – but the fire caught them by surprise because most of these fires occur in summer, because of lightning strikes.

Risk of fires and explosions at oil fields in North Dakota

Rogue Energy Services explains that “Saltwater, or produced water, is a byproduct of natural gas and oil production. This water is heavily polluted with salt, hydrocarbons, and industrial compounds.” Saltwater Disposal Wells (SWDs) inject the saltwater deep into the ground. These types of wells are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The saltwater can be managed by reusing it for irrigation, fracking, or other purposes. It can be injected back into the earth. It can be treated and released into surface waters. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method. SWD operations have one overall major disadvantage – the risk of explosions and fires.

According to Alliance Insurance, saltwater disposal sites include some of the most dangerous risks in today’s energy sector. According to the EPA, there are nearly 144,000 Class II wells due to fracking and other strategies to manage the saltwater drilling byproduct. Some of the dangers of these Class II saltwater disposal wells include lightning strikes and pollution exposures. Lightning strikes can cause fiery explosions because many of the components in saltwater industry equipment are made of fiberglass and outer combustible components, and because the water itself contains dangerous, even flammable, pollutants. Add to this that these sites are usually the tallest buildings in a relatively flat area, and you can see why lightning in particular poses a real risk.

And a common one, too: Risk Engineers did some digging and learned that “there were 216,978,014 lightning events recorded in the U.S. in 2019.” Luckily, North Dakota sits in the middle of the pack; we rank 23rd out of all 50 states for strikes.

The Hanover Insurance Group states that static electricity can also cause fires in or near oilfield equipment such as tank batteries. Per their analysis, “Saltwater disposal (SWD) sites present a challenge due to tank battery exposures and the flammable fluids/vapors held within the tanks.” To reduce the risk, tank manufacturers try to incorporate “bonding/grounding materials within fiberglass tanks; yet this alone is not sufficient and additional bonding/grounding controls for static electricity are needed within tanks for storing/transferring large volumes of oilfield fluids.”

This analysis by Hanover indicates that manufacturers may be liable for any deaths or injuries, such as burn injuries, that occur at SWDs – in addition to the possible liability of the oilfield companies themselves. Oilfield companies need to understand and implement the latest forms of lightning and fire protection and comply with federal and state safety laws and guidelines. For example, Hanover states that “documented electrical bonding and grounding systems inspections should be completed every six months and include repairs or maintenance items needed and performed.”

The severity of the injuries from explosions and fires at saltwater disposal sites

Saltwater disposal sites that explode are mostly likely to cause severe burn injuries that could result in death. Survivors of severe second- and third-degree burns are likely to require multiple surgeries, skin grafts, and plastic surgeries. Many survivors will need to work with a team of rehabilitative specialists just to get out of bed in the morning, let alone function, and have any chance of returning to work. Most burn injury victims require psychological help to cope with their scarring, disfigurement, and pain.

Other SWD injuries may include brain injuries, spinal cord damage, crush injuries, traumatic amputations, broken bones, internal organ damage, and other severe injuries. As Risk Engineers described it, a tank fire can cause such a powerful explosion that “the tank lids themselves fly like frisbees or even the tanks are propelled up in the air like a heavy rockets.” Anyone in the area is at risk of a life-threatening injury.

If any type of oilfield explosion or fire, including explosions or fires at saltwater disposal sites, caused you physical harm or took the life of a loved one, you need experienced personal injury lawyers on your side. Larson Law Firm P.C. has more than 40 years of experience fighting for burn injury victims and victims of other types of injuries. We demand compensation for all your economic and personal damages. Call our Minot office or fill out our contact form to schedule a free consultation today. We represent clients in Minot, Bismarck, and Fargo.