BILLINGS (AP) — Oil companies have agreed to pay $320,000 to the northeastern Montana city of Poplar to relocate water wells and take other steps to deal with a 40 million gallon plume of pollution seeping into drinking supplies.
Environmental Protection Agency scientist Sarah Roberts said Tuesday that Poplar's water so far remains safe to drink but faces imminent danger.
Federal officials have been tracking the underground plume's spread from the East Poplar oil field for decades. It is moving toward Poplar and reached city water supplies in 2010.
Some wells outside town already have been rendered undrinkable by the plume of salty pollution.
The agreement signed Monday was between the EPA and Pioneer Natural Resources USA, Murphy Exploration and Production and SGH Enterprises.
The agency first ordered the companies to deal with the plume in 2010. But that was appealed by the companies and a federal judge referred the case to mediation, leading to Monday's agreement.
The brine entered the drinking water aquifer over a five decade span following drilling in the east Poplar field.
The city's wells serve about 3,000 people in and around Poplar, the seat of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes.
Like the 2010 EPA order, the settlement requires the companies to closely monitor pollution levels. New to the agreement are site-specific pollution triggers requiring the companies to provide alternative drinking water supplies before contamination concentrations become a health problem.
That could be through treating contaminated water or bringing in new supplies. The plume contains trace metals and volatile organic compounds.
"EPA and the oil companies both came to the table to work it out with the tribes and the city to protect the public health," Roberts said. "These trigger values are to alert companies that (contamination) is nearing levels that present a risk to human health, so we can take action before the water quality is degraded."
A long-term plan is being developed to construct a new drinking water pipeline to Poplar from the Missouri River.