JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Of Refineries And Bridges

There is news this week on several fronts involving threats to the North Dakota Bad Lands. There are some long documents to read. Here’s a summary. More when I get done reading them.

THAT DAMN REFINERY

First, Meridian Energy’s proposed oil refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. You probably read that the Dakota Resource Council and its legal ally, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, filed a complaint with the North Dakota Public Service Commission asking the PSC to assume jurisdiction over the siting of the refinery before construction can begin.

On Monday, the PSC accepted the two groups’ complaint and agreed to serve the complaint on Meridian. What that means is that Meridian will now have to respond to the request for a full site evaluation. I’m pretty sure it also means that it cannot start construction of the refinery (Meridian has its Permit to Construct for a month but have not started any work at the site yet) until the PSC hears both sides of the story. The PSC has heard the environmental group’s side in the 17-page complaint, and now it will l get to hear Meridian’s case, arguing that it is not subject to PSC review.

And then, the PSC will decide whether to accept jurisdiction over the plant and require Meridian to undergo a full site review to decide if this is a good place to put a refinery. If it does that (and I won’t be surprised if it does), expect Meridian to go to court and challenge the PSC’s ability to do that. If Meridian doesn’t, expect ELPC to go to court to try to get a judge to order it done.

ELPC’s complaint asks for a cease and desist order, keeping Meridian from going ahead. I’m not sure if Monday’s motion grants that order. I’m waiting for a call back from an attorney to answer that question, but I’m guessing it does. I’ll keep you posted.

THAT DAMN LITTLE MISSOURI BRIDGE

The second long document I have to read is the long-awaited 80-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement on Billings County’s proposed Little Missouri River Crossing north of Medora, which was released a couple of weeks ago.

I say long-awaited because public hearings on this project were held in the summer of 2012, and we’ve been waiting more than six years now to see this document. No one seems to know what the holdup was, but no one was complaining, except the Billings County Commission, which has shelled out millions of dollars to the engineering firm KLJ for it.

The EIS identifies the proposed location of the new bridge — about 12 miles north of Medora — and explains why this is the best location for a new Little Missouri River crossing. The location is on private land — the historic Short Ranch — in spite of the fact that Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud said unequivocally at the public hearings on the project in June 2012 that the bridge would be built on public land.

Apparently KLJ couldn’t find a place to put it on public land. It will be interesting to hear Arthaud try to explain what happened. It will also be interesting to hear him explain why no one has bothered to even contact the Short family to let them know what is going on. The bridge is proposed to cross the river just downstream from the Short’s home place, within eyesight of the ranch headquarters, and no one from the county or the engineering firm has even bothered to talk to them.

The release of the EIS also triggers a new round of public hearings, scheduled in Bismarck and Medora. The DOT ran some huge, 25-column-inch ads in the Bismarck and Medora papers a couple of weeks ago advertising the public meetings, scheduled for next week, in Bismarck and Medora. But then, with no public fanfare, DOT changed the dates to the following week with just a short notice buried deep on the Billings County website.

So here’s the deal. The Medora hearing is now scheduled for 5 p.m. (MDT) July 23, in the Medora Community Center. The Bismarck hearing is at the Courtyard by Marriot Hotel in North Bismarck at 5 p.m. July 26.

These hearings are to gather public input on the bridge project. If you don’t like the idea of another bridge across the Little Missouri, in the middle of no goddam place, you should go to one or both of these hearings and make your feelings known. You should probably read the EIS before you go. You can find links to it here.

THAT OTHER DAMN BRIDGE

The third thing in the news this week is a notice from Bureau of Land Management that it is “seeking public comments regarding an application to authorize an existing single-lane ranch bridge over the Little Missouri River, with an associated access road, in Dunn County.”

You read that right. An application to authorize an existing bridge.

This is the bridge I’ve written about before, built by rancher Wiley Bice, west of Killdeer, on BLM land without BLM permission. The BLM knew nothing about this bridge on its land until I told them about it last year, even though it had been there for a few years. Bice also planted alfalfa on BLM land without permission.

In February, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the application Bice submitted for this bridge, but even though the government is compelled by law to give me that application, it refuses to do so. Now I’ve received a letter asking me to comment on an application I have not seen.

I’ve pretty much lost patience with the BLM. Noted author Ed Abbey called it the Bureau of Livestock and Mines. A friend of mine in Montana called it the Bureau of Leasing and Mining. Both were pretty accurate. I know the BLM has been busy with an oil boom in North Dakota, although it hasn’t been booming so much the last couple of years, but it is apparent to me that it doesn’t even go out and look at its land to see what is going on.

I’m pretty sure no one had looked at the parcel that Wiley Bice built his bridge on — and planted alfalfa on — and built a road on, for more than five years. They’re the Bureau of Land MANAGEMENT. How can it MANAGE our public lands if it never goes look at it to see who’s abusing it?

Anyway, according to this letter, if you go to this website you will find all you need to know — not really, just all they want you to know — about this project, and how to comment. You have until Aug. 13 to respond. I have no idea what will happen after that.

Well, actually, I kind of do. The BLM will conduct an Environmental Assessment (a little bit cheaper version of the document Billings County did for their bridge) on the project, and then tell Bice to go ahead and build his bridge. Oh, wait, it’s already built. Never mind.

In a separate letter I found a copy of Tuesday, North Dakota BLM manager Loren Wikstrom writes that the alternatives being considered in the EA are:

  1. Take no action (leave the bridge, road, pond, and alfalfa fields on the land as-is). This would not achieve the project purpose, but the BLM will analyze the effects to serve as a baseline;
  2. Remove the bridge, road, pond, and alfalfa fields and rehabilitate the public land to a condition similar to that of the surrounding public land.
  3. Sell or exchange the affected public land to the adjacent landowner;
  4. Authorize the bridge, road and pond through rights-of-way, and the alfalfa fields through a lease; and
  5. Authorize only the bridge and access road through a right-of-way, remove the pond and alfalfa fields and rehabilitate the public land. In the event a right-of-way for the bridge and road are granted by the BLM, the site would still remain inaccessible to the public, via road, due to the lack of public roads to the site.

Loren has already told me that No. 5 is their preferred alternative, and that they’re not looking to make Bice  tear down a bridge that cost a couple of million dollars. He’s also told me they are making Bice pay for the cost of the EA and the reclamation. No big deal to Bice. As I wrote here earlier, he sold his oilfield trucking company for about $100 million. This is small change for him.

So I wouldn’t waste time writing letters to the BLM about this. It’s a done deal. A rich guy builds a bridge on public land, gets his hands slapped and lives happily ever after. That’s how the Bureau of Land Management manages your land.

Anyway, those three things are a pretty good indicator that there are still plenty of threats to North Dakota’s Bad Lands. So many it’s hard to keep track. I’ll try to write about each of them as things progress. Somebody has to keep an eye on these bastards.

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Jim Fuglie

Jim Fuglie is a native of Hettinger, N.D., a U.S. Navy veteran (1968-1972) and majored in communications at Dickinson State College (now Dickinson State University) in Dickinson, ND. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, as a speechwriter and communications director for North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Myron Just and as Executive Director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party. He worked at the Herald from late 1975 to early 1976. In 1985, Jim was appointed North Dakota Tourism Director by Governor George Sinner and served in that post until 1992. He later worked as Development Director for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation and as public relations director for Kranzler Kingsley Communications in Bismarck. He retired in 2009, and he and his wife Lillian, the retired Director of Library Services at Dickinson State University, now live in Bismarck and spend much of their time exploring the back roads and trails of the North Dakota Bad Lands.

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