What waste?! New solutions to handling wastewater in the Bakken

By Rebecca Colnar 

A new man camp outside of Sidney, Montana has its own wastewater lagoon. Photo courtesy: Rebecca Colnar.
A new man camp outside of Sidney, Montana has its own wastewater lagoon. Photo courtesy: Rebecca Colnar.

If you have a large population, there’s going to be wastewater. When a small community suddenly sees burgeoning growth, wastewater needs to be dealt with quickly and efficiently while adhering to regulations.

“With the increased activity in the Bakken oilfield, and new people moving in, there is a big increase in domestic wastewater,” explains Karl Rockeman, P.E., NPDES program manager, North Dakota Department of Health. “The wastewater our department deals with is what comes from living—bathrooms, showers, cooking and cleaning. Each and every housing development, RV park and apartment complex needs to deal with wastewater.”

Rockeman provides a summary of waste treatment options. “Typically in North Dakota in the past, we used a facultative lagoon system. It’s a good system and is still used by almost all of our cities, but the drawback is that a lagoon system takes up a lot of land. This was not a problem until recently; however with the price of land, and land availability, our communities in western North Dakota are now looking at other options using mechanical treatments.

The three mechanical treatment options:

  • Store and haul elsewhere. A good option for many of the small facilities. But once the area gets to certain size, it doesn’t make sense to haul that much waste, so you need to have to have a place to haul it to.
  • Treat it and discharge it into surface water. The treatment allows the water to be good enough quality for discharge into a creek or stream.
  • Let it infiltrate into the soil, similar to a septic system.

Housing facilities are developing their own treatment options. The North Dakota Division of Water Quality has responded by developing different permits for mechanical treatment, which has allowed permits to be issued in a timely manner and provides additional protection for an area.

“The most common system is the septic system. They are easy to design and construct. The drawback is you have to have a certain type of soil to be able to do that,” says Rockeman. “We found that larger facilities are using a system with a holding pond where waste can be discharged into the stream after it’s treated. We certainly have strict requirements for quality and monitoring/reporting. This method is tightly regulated and inspectors regularly check the facilities.”

Rockeman says his department is encouraging cities with wastewater treatment plants to increase their capacity.  “That can be the least expensive solution for everyone. However, sometimes because of location, it might not be possible. We are suggesting facilities work together—for instance, an apartment complex, an RV park and a small housing development can share wastewater treatment plans. It’s more efficient to band together and share water treatment sources.”

Some entities are installing their own separate septic systems with a drain field, a cost-effective method for a small venue.  Others, if they have land available, are building facultative lagoons. Lagoons are dependent on weather, though; so if it’s hot and windy, the water will be treated in about three weeks. When it’s cold and rainy, the process takes more time.

Rockeman says mechanical treatment plants condense space and time by using mechanical blowers and other methods.

“Most RV camps have hook-ups, so each camper can tie in to a sewer collection system,” explains Rockeman. “If you look at the facilities, most have lines plumbed in to each individual site.”

He’s quick to point out that the N.D. Department of Health requires several approvals for crew housing facilities. “The designs of the wastewater collection system and clean water system need to be approved before construction, as does the system for treated water disposal, such as a drain field or surface water discharge. The source of drinking water has to be approved, as well, and includes monitoring to make sure there is clean water for people.”

What happens to the sludge? With a typical lagoon, generally it will be 10 to 15 years until the sludge will need to be removed. Mechanical plants have more sludge, which is generally put in a landfill or applied to crop land. Both, however, require a permit through the Environmental Protection Agency in Denver.

Municipal Decisions

The city of Dickinson has successfully used lagoons for water treatment for its pre-oil boom residents. However, with the energy boom continuing in western North Dakota, city administrator Shawn Kessel says Dickinson is currently in the middle of constructing a mechanical treatment plant.

“We started a wastewater treatment master plan in 2009, about the time the oil boom hit, and the recommendation was to move to a rapid infiltration basin system,” notes Kessel. “Modifying our lagoon-based system was going to cost around $12 million and be able to accommodate the wastewater of 26,000 people. A population growth study by North Dakota State University showed our area will reach 50,000 people, so we went back to the drawing board and planned a mechanical treatment plant. That’s going to be a $30-million plant, and when all is said and done, we’ll have $40 million in wastewater treatment upgrades.”

Double-Tree’s Target Logistics plant near Tioga, N.D.
Double-Tree’s Target Logistics plant near Tioga, N.D.

Kessel said although the price-tag is high, the new facility will be able to accommodate the increase in population, meet ever-increasing federal regulations and be state-of-the-art. He expects the plant will begin operation in June 2014 and will be running full-speed-ahead by September.

“We will still maintain our lagoon system for peak flows and other reasons, but the actual wastewater treatment will no longer be done in the lagoons,” he says. The good news is there is demand for the treated wastewater: Dakota Prairie Refining west of Dickson will be using the water for industrial purposes, and it will continue to be used by farmers for irrigation.

Treatment Options

Barbara Campbell of Double-Tree, Inc. has been in the wastewater management business for 35 years.
Barbara Campbell of Double-Tree, Inc. has been in the wastewater management business for 35 years.

Barbara Campbell with Double-Tree, Inc., located in Bozeman, Mont., has been in the wastewater treatment business for 35 years.  In the Bakken, the Double-Tree, Inc. focus is on the development, construction and operation of wastewater treatment plants that provide for the quality treatment of sewage and the recovery of fresh water for reuse. On-site treatment of sewage at man camps and other sites in the Bakken eliminates expensive hauling and pressure on community systems. Reuse in the Bakken brings a new source of water for oilfield activities and reduces pressure on the fresh water resources.

“We previously only worked with municipal wastewater treatment, but got called into North Dakota a couple of years ago because their sewer systems weren’t able to handle the capacity associated with new growth,” Campbell says. “We met with North Dakota Department of Health officials, including Karl Rockeman, to determine the state’s expectations for wastewater treatment and researched the North Dakota regulations. We built a plant near Tioga to treat wastewater from the Target Logistics Tioga Lodge man camp. We have also revamped the system at Capitol Lodge because it wasn’t meeting expectations.

“We work with large mechanical treatment plants,” she goes on to explain.  “Much of the demand for treatment in North Dakota is for smaller volumes and a number of smaller package plants are emerging to meet that need.  The primary factor for any wastewater treatment facility is to follow state and federal rules,” Campbell says. “A lot of people not in the sewer business don’t understand that treatment standards have to be met and discharge regulations have to be followed.”

A BSS water treatment facility.
A BSS water treatment facility.

She’s impressed that the State of North Dakota has risen to meet the challenge of growing wastewater concerns. “Lagoon systems are dinosaurs, but they do work. The state has stepped up its funding to help small communities address their needs, which is quite proactive. A lot of man camps are outside of the reach of municipal systems, so developers are researching what they can do on site.  In selecting a wastewater treatment system for a project, the developer should take into consideration wastewater characteristics, amount of treated water storage required and method of discharge. If the developer is planning to sell treated water for reuse, the developer should be aware of any compatibility issues the buyer may have.”

“You can’t have people without having sewers,” Campbell says. “Sewage treatment is a 24/7 process.”

Another company that has seen an opportunity to manage wastewater is Bakken Sanitation Solutions BioBridge BSS, LLC (BSS). “The challenge in the Bakken area is that municipal systems are exceeding the capacity of how much they can treat and safely discharge into existing waterways,” explains Keith Ehlers, one of the partners in the business.

“Municipalities that want to expand and meet the growing needs for wastewater treatment have encountered some hurdles along the way that have delayed such efforts,” Ehlers says. “For example, the City of Williston was underway with plans for a large expansion to an existing facility along the river when federal agencies decided it was time to redraw the floodplain maps; this then placed the existing facility within a floodplain and required major adjustments to the expansion design. However, even when the municipal facilities across western North Dakota are expanded there will still be a major gap between treatment capacity and demand, because there is a huge amount of wastewater generated by the workforce on the jobsites scattered throughout the rural areas outside of city limits.

“In most cases, the city government is focused on satisfying the needs of their constituents within the city limits.  In other words, city governments seem to be considerate to the fact that they should not spend their taxpayers’ money on building an oversized facility and accepting the burden of its operations costs to service the rural areas in the county from which no tax revenue is generated.  When you combine the temporary uses, such as man camps and RV parks, along with the wastewater generated in the rural areas, there is a lot of wastewater that municipal facilities cannot, or choose not, to treat.”

BSS partners (left to right): Dawnette Smith, Keith Ehlers, Tim Petz and Ryan Ivy.
BSS partners (left to right): Dawnette Smith, Keith Ehlers, Tim Petz and Ryan Ivy.

BioBridge BSS is filling the niche.  They constructed a facility and opened for business in June after developing a mechanical and biomicrobic system to treat wastewater, and have gone through the state process including permitting and zoning use.

“We have the technology and an operating facility to satisfy demand and provide an alternative to the current practice of land application of wastewater,” says Ehlers. “Until now, the options for treating wastewater have been very limited, which has put hauling companies and the regulatory agencies in a tough spot because proper land application is tough to regulate during the summer and in the winter, it is nearly impossible to do and still meet regulatory requirements. Yet that has been the primary solution for the last several years. BSS now has a solution and we are working with regulatory agencies and the hauling companies so that strict enforcement of existing health regulations regarding wastewater disposal can be done without hindering the growth in industry and economy that we are all enjoying.”

“Our new technology uses a bio-microbic, fast-treatment system,” explains Tim Petz, another company partner. “We can treat 80,000 gallons of wastewater per day and recycle it back into the environment. It takes roughly a day to turn sewage into usable water.  Our plant reduces the sewage load and eliminates the problem of truckers driving 100 miles away to dispose of sewage. Because there is a shortage of waste-treatment facilities, some pumpers might not be adhering to regulations and that certainly isn’t good for the environment. However, enforcement agencies just can’t fine people if there’s no solution available. We created a plan to accept it, treat it and meeting the health regulation standards to recycle it. Not only does our plant reduce illegal dumping and truck traffic, but does it in a cost-effective way.”

Ehlers notes that BSS is working to reach out to the logistical administrators of venues like man camps, RV parks, and the workforces on rigs and pipelines now that they offer a solution for treating wastewater.

The water treated by BSS has several post-treatment uses. After treatment, it goes into a large pond next to the plant where it’s stored, where it can be used as needed. The primary acceptable use is for fracking, where it can be used in the drilling process and thus relieve the burden on aquifers. It can also be used for dust suppression on the roads, and can be sprayed as irrigation on fields used for grazing livestock or farm crops. Last, but not least, the water is clean enough that, with the permits and monitoring already obtained by BSS, can be discharged into the river.

4-6“At this time, the North Dakota government appears favorable to the energy industry, and we feel we’ve provided a solution to one of the many challenges caused by rapid growth in the Bakken,” says Ehlers. “Our system allows enforcement agencies to impose their regulations for a clean environment while giving places like man camps, RV parks and rigs a place to efficiently and economically take their wastewater—and simultaneously reducing the truck traffic of hauling the wastewater to far-away treatment facilities or random fields.”

When one looks at the reduced truck traffic (the BSS plant is only 13 miles north of Williston), the beneficial water resulting from the treatment and the cost-effectiveness, it’s certainly a win-win for everyone in the Bakken.

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