The Roundup -

Oil Spills, Soils and Health

The surprising connection between oil spills and mental health.


October 4, 2017 | View PDF

Photo courtesy of Associated Press: In this January 12, 2015 photo, crews dig at a spill site near Blacktail Creek outside Williston, N.D.

Oil spills are easy to see, but psychological wounds are completely invisible. Landowners across the Bakken are being affected by brine spills, oil spills, and pipeline projects in ways we are just beginning to understand.

Dr. Tom DeSutter, Associate Professor of Soil Science at North Dakota State University, has been researching soil issues associated with the oil and gas industry. Typically, those studies focus solely on the ground itself. "We're trying to work closely with land owners and the industry to come up with new research to improve or speed up soil reclamation," DeSutter said.

One of the most prevalent and observable issues DeSutter works with is reclaiming soil in areas where underground pipelines have been installed. During the pipeline instillation, a trough is dug and the topsoil and subsoil are separated. However, the heavy equipment and work crews will generally drive along one side and compact the soil. "With the pipelines," Holzer said, "it's about how to alleviate the compaction with plants and their roots or a more aggressive deep tillage treatment. If there's mixing of the top soil and sub soil, then that will also be a long term lower-producing area. The pipeline installers know this, and I feel they do the best they can but there's always going to be issues when you disturb the soil."

Like pipeline areas, oil spills and brine spills also require their own special treatment which is being continually researched by scientists like Dr. DeSutter. "It's a tough road," DeSutter said. "Oil Spill reclamation can occur much faster than a brine spill, because the brine is essentially salt. When oil comes out, it's a mixture of oil and water. Above ground the oil is separated from the water and the water is the brine. That brine can have up to 5x more salt in it than sea water."

Over time, and with care, these scars in the land can eventually dissipate. However, DeSutter is noticing a different kind of disturbance. This is one of the mental environment rather than the agricultural one.

As land often does, it incurs more than just a monetary value. "I did two talks last year on soil and mental health,"DeSutter said. "One case study I did was talking about a spill and the landowners."

During this lecture, DeSutter covered a case study in which a farm had been owned by a North Dakota family for multiple generations. The deed had been signed by William Taft, and the entire family had a strong connection to their land. However, an spill had happened and the family entered what DeSutter describes as "a new normal".

Suddenly, dozens of new people were thrust into their daily lives. From Green Peace to the United States government, they were no longer the only ones dealing with the issue. While many hands make light work, the spill cleanup process can be a life altering experience. "There's the mental side of these spills as well," DeSutter said. "If someone has a spill on their land, then that next day or soon after, they may have eight or fifteen new people in their life working on that spill. The mental health side of these issues really wears on people. Whatever method can be used to reduce that liability, I think that's a good thing to shoot for."

But a spill doesn't have to be all doom and gloom. DeSutter has seen these relationships between oil companies, government entities, and families be very transparent and effective. "It was really impressive to see," DeSutter said. "I know it's not the norm, but it certainly is a good model."

This issue hasn't been completely ignored on a national level. A multitude of studies on the effects of oil spills and mental health have been completed by universities in nearly every major oil producing state. The American Psychological Associated noted a study focusing on rural fishing communities affected by oil spills which found increased levels of anxiety and depression.

While there still remains a stigma attached to seeking help with the mental environment, DeSutter continues to keep a keen scientific eye open for possible solutions. "I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can help empower the land owner to ask their question so they have a stronger understanding of what is happening on their land," DeSutter said.


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