The city of Pawhuska was forced to change its drinking water source in November when city officials learned about the contamination. The EPA is investigating. Photo Courtesy of the Big Heart Times

The EPA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are trying to determine what has caused toxic levels of saltwater to leak into Bird Creek since August, threatening drinking water and livestock in the Osage County area.

The city of Pawhuska was forced to change its drinking water source in November when city officials learned about the contamination. Ranchers in the area have also relocated livestock due to high levels of salt in the north fork of Bird Creek, near Pawhuska in Osage County.

In an email to the BIA Aug. 26, a rancher wrote that a leak of saltwater and oil was reported to the agency’s hotline Aug. 14.

“Today is 13 days later and zero response from your office as to where the leak is coming from to stop and restore North Bird Creek loaded with salt water,” states the email from Ron P. Reed, obtained from the BIA through a FOIA request.

“This appears to be a huge embarrassment to your office and the BIA and for that I am very sorry.”

The Bigheart Times, a weekly newspaper covering Osage County, has written extensively about the saltwater pollution. The newspaper’s owner and publisher, Louise Red Corn, requested the records from the BIA and shared them with The Frontier.

The BIA issues oilfield permits in Osage County while the EPA regulates environmental issues such as the saltwater leak.

The BIA withheld 56 pages of records about the contamination, citing a federal “deliberative process privilege” designed to encourage “frank exchange of ideas on legal or policy matters by ensuring agencies are not forced to operate in a fish bowl.”

The saltwater is possibly coming from a wastewater injection well, where water produced from oil and gas drilling operations is pumped deep underground. Salts can be toxic to freshwater plants and animals and can make water unsafe for drinking, irrigation and livestock watering.

The contaminated portion of Bird Creek is west of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, the largest protected tract of tallgrass prairie on earth.

The leak has contaminated about two miles of Bird Creek and was responsible for a fish kill in August on ranchland owned by the Bass brothers, Texas billionaires who own about 38,000 acres in Osage County.

In an email to The Frontier Thursday, a spokesman for EPA’s regional office in Dallas said the agency is working with other local and federal agencies to determine the source of the “saltwater intrusion” in Bird Creek.

“EPA is assessing several oil and gas-related sites in the area as well as subsurface conditions to determine possible sources and pathways for the discharge. EPA and partner agencies will continue monitoring water quality in Bird Creek for further information,” the email states.

“While readings of total soluble salts (TSS) at the headwaters of the creek remain elevated, they have dropped from initial values of 70,000 parts per million to most recent values in the upper 40,000 parts per million. However, the reason for the reduction is unknown.”

Bob Jackman, a Tulsa-based petroleum engineer, said the level of salinity — whether 70,000 or 45,000 parts per million is “as bad or worse than drinking sea water. Very unhealthy.”

Jackman has been a frequent critic of the state’s response to the growing number of earthquakes, which are triggered by wastewater injection.

“This appears to be another Oklahoma water quality issue caused by rusted out disposable wells – often abandoned … and sometimes reported by the press as large fish kill of unknown causes.”
In his email to an official in the BIA’s Osage County office, Reed states: “We have requested some type of update and yet to have any communication as of this date. The salt levels in North Bird Creek were at levels harmful to livestock which mandated our removal (of) livestock from said pastures.”
Reed’s email said that BIA field representatives “said it could of been caused by 8 to 10 semi truck loads of salt water dumping into said creek down a narrow ranch road between two ranch houses with only departure access is to back up a narrow crooked road about a mile long.”
“My thoughts would be that flying cows have a great possibility than semi trucks dumping salt water in said location.”