Montana State University

MSU online master’s graduate studies results of fracking brine water spill

September 15, 2015 -- Jenny Lavey, MSU News Service

MSU land resources and environmental sciences graduate student Alexa Azure studied the impacts of the biggest brine water spill in North Dakota. Photo courtesy of Alexa Azure.

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Alexa Azure has always been interested in water.

An enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, she remembers one spring when the water tasted gritty and another time when Standing Rock completely ran out of water. She doesn’t drink the water from her home faucet. Instead, she uses her own reverse osmosis water filter system. 

“My whole life I’ve been interested in water,” Azure said. “It’s a basic resource that’s essential for all life on the planet.”

Azure’s interest in water, as well as her experience teaching pre-engineering classes at a tribal college in an area that she says is sensitive to water issues due to its proximity to the Bakken oilfields, prompted her to consider an educational background in environmental science. That educational background would help her be a better teacher for her students who are interested in environmental issues, she thought.

“I wanted to deepen my understanding of the environmental side of things,” Azure said. “I have the chemical and engineering background but not the environmental background and I could tell that’s where the interest of most of my students was, because of the industry in our region and the effect it has on local communities.”

The catch, Azure said, was that she didn’t want to have to leave her job in order to pursue an advanced degree.

That’s where Montana State University came in. MSU and its online master’s program in land resources and environmental sciences within the College of Agriculture helped Azure achieve her educational goals without having to drastically change her life or quit her full-time teaching job.

“The program was great, and I would recommend it anyone,” Azure said. “The instructors were amazing and I learned a lot not just in the technical field, but professionally as well.”

The online LRES master's program started in 2012 with 11 students. Now in its fourth year, the program enrolls 58 students with 18 instructors.

Azure also enjoyed great success as a student in the MSU program. During her time in the program, she earned a prestigious scholarship, the American Indian College Fund and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Leadership Fellowship Program, a fellowship created to increase and retain the number of diverse and under-represented faculty at the nation’s tribal colleges teaching in science, math and engineering. In 2013, Azure was one of only two native students in the country who earned the prestigious scholarship, according to the American Indian College Fund.

Azure once attended United Tribes Technical College as an undergraduate student and completed a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from The University of North Dakota in 2012. She has since been teaching pre-engineering classes at the tribal college, located just three hours from Williston, N.D., where the Williston Basin and Bakken formation is.

On Jan. 6, the largest brine spill that has occurred in North Dakota happened in Williston. Three million gallons of salty brine water was accidentally released into the surrounding environment, local surface and groundwater. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the contaminated water reached the Missouri River.

Brine water, a byproduct of oil and gas drilling, is a particular risk where hydraulic fracking is practiced because the brine can include toxic levels of salt, heavy metals and radioactive materials that can raise salinity levels of local waterways that can affect plants, invertebrate and amphibian life, according to the EPA.

Azure decided to use the environmental disaster in her own backyard as the subject of her professional paper required of the master’s degree, so she performed an environmental risk assessment of the brine spill to measure the potential effect on the surrounding environment. She evaluated water samples from the nearby Blacktail Creek and the Little Muddy River and also used the rivers’ fathead minnow, a key food-web species in North Dakota, to see if there were any harmful effects from the brine spill on local fish habitat.  She found that some of her samples that were exposed to the brine water exceeded risk thresholds set by the North Dakota State Department of Health and the EPA.

Robert Peterson, director of the online LRES program and faculty in the department, who also served as Azure’s professional paper instructor, said the spill was unfortunate, but it was also an asset to the scientific training the program encourages.

“What was really awesome is that she used the process of science and research to respond to a very timely and regional environmental problem,” Peterson said. “Her data can potentially be used in predicating risk from future spills of a similar size, so the applicability of her study was directly tied our curriculum and her field.”

Peterson said his online students can bring a different viewpoint to class discussions, as most are currently working in a professional field, many from nonprofits, governmental organizations and private industry. 

“Alexa is a teacher and an engineer, so you could sense her earnestness to improve her teaching,” Peterson said. “We don’t have too many engineers in our program, so she brought a very different perspective to the coursework, which was an advantage for her and for the rest of the class.”

Karlene Hoo, dean of The Graduate School at MSU, said online graduate students are a growing and important demographic at MSU.

“Alexa exemplifies the many graduate students at MSU who are earning a degree while living and working at a distance,” Hoo said. “Programs such as the online LRES degree offer students like Alexa the opportunity to establish rigorous research agendas that also serve the needs of rural and indigenous communities

For more information about the online LRES program, contact Extended University at (406) 994-3062 or Distance@montana.edu. 

Contact: Robert Peterson, bpeterson@montana.edu or (406) 994-7927