- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Scientists have halted a project aimed at finding a new way to restore North Dakota land ruined by briny oilfield wastewater, determining there wasn’t enough money allocated to complete the research.

The scientists, at the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center, have found that the site in Renville County is double the size of what had been thought and isn’t feasible now because of additional costs involved, said John Harju, an EERC vice president.

“This has evaporated,” Harju told The Associated Press.

Harju said the researchers will use the money now to monitor - but not clean - some additional sites affected by oil development. The North Dakota Industrial Commission, a three-member panel that includes Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple, approved the change in plans Monday.

The Legislature last year set aside $1.5 million from portion of a tax on North Dakota oil production to restore land impacted from oil booms past and where companies no longer are legally responsible for land ruined by saltwater, a byproduct of oil production that can be many times saltier than seawater.

Part of the effort was aimed at allowing North Dakota’s two biggest universities to develop a method of restoring such sites without the use of expensive mechanized excavation and hauling in new dirt to re-cover the land.

UND’s research center got a $500,000 grant to use pumps and drainage tiles to flush and recover salt from sites, instead of digging it up.

Harju said the affected site in Renville County was estimated at 7 acres, up from 3 ½ acres estimated earlier. The depth of the affected site also is about 14 feet, or triple initial estimates, he said.

A nearby oil well also was recently shut down due to low oil prices. That well, which was not the culprit of the spill decades ago, would have helped provide fresh water for the pilot project, along with sharing the costs of disposal of saltwater, Harju said.

“All by itself, the project can’t support it,” he said.

Research being done by North Dakota State University is ongoing, said Brent Brannan, director of the North Dakota Oil and Gas Research Program.

NDSU’s research is focused on applying low-cost and readily available chemicals to the surface of brine-tainted sites, which would cause the salt to rise to the surface where it could be scraped off and disposed. NDSU researcher have said they have had success with the method in in the lab, and field trials are expected to begin within the next year in the north-central part of the state, where the school has identified some 175 salt-contaminated waste pits, some dating back to the first oil boom in the early 1950s.

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