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Blackfeet Tribe signs with company to treat, recycle 'fracking' water

March 28, 2012 2:33 pm  • 

WHITEFISH, Mont. – A company specializing in eco-friendly wastewater treatment announced Tuesday that it will bring its remediation technology to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, where oil and gas companies are actively engaged in a controversial extraction process called hydraulic fracturing.

The Blackfeet Nation signed an exclusive letter of commitment with the water treatment company, Florida-based Ecosphere Technologies Inc., which has ties to Whitefish and will soon introduce its chemical-free treatment method to reservation lands leased for “fracking.”

The fracking process involves pumping millions of gallons of water into the ground at high pressure to fracture shale formations and create pathways for natural gas to flow back to the surface. The process is controversial because about 70 percent of the fracking fluid remains underground, and the flow-back water contains oil sheens, heavy metals and bacteria. The refuse must then be collected and trucked off site for disposal or storage.

Ecosphere Chairman and CEO Charles Vinick said his company’s patented treatment process, called Ozonix, involves a non-chemical method of recovering and sanitizing all of the water pumped underground. The process uses ozone to decompose contaminants and chemicals in the flow-back water, precluding the need to truck the discharge off site. Instead, Vinick said the highly ozonated water can be recycled and reused for continuous fracking operations, saving energy companies money, protecting the environment and preserving the community’s water supply.

“This agreement with the Blackfeet Nation sets the stage for the tribe to develop their lands in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner,” Vinick said in a telephone interview. “What we found in our conversations with the tribal council was that they were interested in a sustainable methodology for treating water on the reservation and we think this is certainly desirable for sustainable development.”

The company – whose subsidiary, Ecosphere Energy Services, is composed of investors and board members from Whitefish – has treated more than 1 billion gallons of water to date at nearly 500 wells, Vinick said. He believes the technology can help solve the water-quality issues plaguing the oil and gas industry.

Grinnell Day Chief, oil and gas manager for the Blackfeet Tribe, said the decision to partner with Ecosphere came after evaluating all available water treatment technologies on the market. Tribal leaders also visited sites where Ecosphere is already applying the treatment service, and was aware of its relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the days after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Ecosphere sent one of its Ozonix systems to Waveland, Miss., producing 70,000 gallons of fresh drinking water every day for area residents.

“By providing the oil and gas companies operating on our land with access to this environmentally sound and cost-effective technology, we are reinforcing our commitment to improving the quality of life for our people through economic development of our energy resources while also preserving our vital natural water resources for future generations,” Day Chief stated in a prepared statement announcing the letter of commitment.

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Tuesday’s announcement comes at a time when tribal members are grappling with the problem of how to balance environmental protection, cultural preservation and economic development, and Day Chief hopes an eco-friendly water treatment process will alleviate some of the environmental concerns as oil and gas exploration ramps up across the reservation.

The Blackfeet reservation sits on top of the prolific Bakken shale, a formation that has experienced a recent boom of activity in the Williston Basin of North Dakota and eastern Montana. Several major oil and gas companies have secured mineral rights from the Blackfeet Tribe and are actively drilling vertical and horizontal wells, including Newfield Exploration, Rosetta Resources and Anschutz Exploration.

All but about 30,000 acres of the 1.5 million-acre Blackfeet Indian Reservation are under exploration leases, and critics of fracking on tribal lands worry about contaminating ground and drinking water, which is already a scarce commodity on the reservation.

The growing chorus of concern has been heard throughout the country in recent years as lawsuits are filed against energy companies accused of contaminating groundwater, and accounts of communities affected by oil and natural gas development have been widely publicized.

The Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corp. has leases to drill exploratory wells on a 400,000-acre tract of land on the western edge of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, adjacent to Glacier Park’s eastern boundary.

Alarming to some tribal members was news last year that Anschytz was facing litigation over contaminated groundwater in Chemung County, New York. The lawsuit alleges the company’s drilling is responsible for causing the contamination, while the company counters that the drinking water was contaminated before the drilling began.

Anschutz was cited in early 2009 by the Blackfeet Environmental Office for a violation at one of its exploratory well sites, where a reserve pit of fracking liquid overflowed due to heavy snowfall, according to Blackfeet Environmental Office director Gerald Wagner. The company has otherwise complied with all regulations for drilling and the drilling process in Montana, Wagner said, but the case proves that risks exist.

Ecosphere’s Ozonix water treatment technology would mitigate those risks, providing operators with a chemical-free method to manage the wastewater, Vinick said, and allowing the flow-back water to be processed onsite and reused.

The letter of commitment announced Tuesday is between the Blackfeet Nation and Ecosphere Technologies, Inc., as well as its majority-owned subsidiary, Ecosphere Energy Services LLC, and its sub-licensee, Hydrozonix LLC.

Flathead Valley Bureau reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at tscott@missoulian.com.