JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Halek Sentencing Delayed Again

If you’ve been following the saga of Jason Halek on my blog for the last four years, you know that on July 31 he was supposed to be sent off to jail for dumping 800,000 gallons of poisonous oilfield brine down an abandoned well south of Dickinson. I last wrote about him on April 13, the day he pleaded guilty to three felonies, committed in late 2012 and early 2013. I ended that with the words “I’ll report back July 31.”

Well, July 31 has come and gone, and no sentencing yet. Judge Daniel Hovland in the U.S. District Court here postponed sentencing until Oct. 11. I’m not sure why, but when I read through the court docket on the case I learned that on July 19, Halek’s attorney, Alex Reichert of Grand Forks, filed a motion for an extension of time to object to the presentence investigation report. I’m guessing that Reichert’s motion was approved, based on the postponement of sentencing.

Halek’s associate, and the guy who fingered him, Nathan Garber, was also scheduled to be sentenced that day, but his sentencing date has also been moved to Oct. 11. He’s going to get off easy, I think, because Halek was the guy the government really wanted, and Garber gave him up.

If you’re new to this case, or this blog, you can read the whole history of it here. I’m not going to burden you with it again.

But let me just say that I am confused about the delay in sentencing, since Halek appeared in court April 12, and when asked by Hovland how he pleaded, he said “Guilty, your honor.” I guess Hovland called for a presentence investigation, but I missed that. And I guess that’s the reason for the delay.

This is now the 10th article I’ve written about this case, and it looks like there will be one more, on or about Oct. 11. It’s actually been a little bit of fun, which it shouldn’t be, because what this guy did is serious business, serious enough to send him to a federal prison for up to three years for violating our country’s Safe Drinking Water Act.

But I’ve had some fun correspondence, from people I don’t know, who have read the blog stories and got in touch with me. Like this one from a guy in Mexico:

“I had the misfortune of working with Jason Halek in Texas where I finally met with him and his dad one morning and told them they were ripping off investors … and they promptly fired me. Best thing that happened to me for sure. I read with interest he may go to jail soon. Would love an update if possible. I would enjoy being there to hear the judge pass sentence too! Keep up the good work … this man is an amazing scam artist and I hope he goes to jail.” (He sent me his phone number and e-mail address, so I will let him know when something happens.)

NOTE: Last I heard, Halek is still on the hook for $22 million he ripped off from those investors. Oh, and he’s still on the hook for about a million and a half dollars in North Dakota fines. Remember that big, black headline back in 2013 screaming “$1.5 Million Fine” on the front page of North Dakota newspapers? As far as I can tell, Halek hasn’t paid a penny of that — the state has received $40,000 from the bond company that Halek engaged when he went into business here, and that’s it. He  still owes of most of that $1.5 million. He’s been selling used cars lately. Gonna take a lot of used cars to clean that up. And he probably won’t have much income for the next few years.

Steph BL. Really, that’s her.
Steph BL. Really, that’s her.

And then just this week, I had a Facebook message from someone I don’t know, and I responded. Here’s the conversation:

MON 12:21PM Steph BL: Did Jason Halek get sentenced yet?

MON 3:41PM: Me: Sentencing postponed to Oct. 11.

MON 3:42PM Steph BL: Wow it just keeps dragging on. I was his first girlfriend in 1994 and have been following his story. Lol. Thanks for the reporting. He gets out of everything it seems.

MON 5:23PM Me: Well he has a good lawyer, but I’m guessing he’s going to the pokey for a couple years. We’ll see.

MON 5:24 Steph BL: Probably what he needs in order to hopefully wake him up. He thinks he’s untouchable invinceable (sic). A true narcissist. I think I probably dodged a bullet when he dumped me. Lol.

Ya think, Steph?

Stay tuned.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Van Hook Oil Pad Upate

A couple of months ago, I wrote about an oil well pad at the top of the Van Hook boat ramp on Lake Sakakawea. I’ve learned a few things about it since then. First, the basics.

There’s a little blue-collar resort community at the top of the Van Hook Arm of Lake Sakakawea, a couple of hundred trailers and cabins and a bait shop, a small RV park and a boat ramp. This spring, an oil company named Slawson Exploration moved in beside the resort, and with its huge machinery, began clearing a 25-acre site at the top of the boat ramp, which will be home to what now looks like an eight-well oil pad. The site is just a few hundred yards from the park and the homes in the community.

To kind of “protect” the community and people on the boat ramp from having to stare at —  and listen to —  their drilling operation, the company built a huge 35-foot-high plastic wall, probably a couple of hundred yards long. These boys could give Donald Trump a lesson in how to put up a wall in a matter of days.

When the wall comes down in a year or so, there will be an oil well complex as big as any in western North Dakota, right there beside the little town, at the top of one of the busiest boat ramps in North Dakota. A steady stream of monster trucks will haul the waste water from the well, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

To make matters worse, there’s a new well, the first of three, just drilled on a pad a half-mile away, on the other side of town. I spent the night with friends there a couple of weeks ago. The quiet of this little lakeside community is now gone, replaced by the steady, loud high-pitched hum of a drilling rig, also 24/7.

“We’ll build a wall so the folks at the boat ramp won’t see us drilling.”

Yeah,  right.

The rig has since been moved to the new pad at the boat ramp and should be in operation any day now. Drilling at least eight wells, maybe as many as 11.

Whose fault is this?

Well, as a friend of mine said recently, the North Dakota Industrial Commission will permit anything, anywhere. Especially now, with oil in the doldrums. Eleven new wells is nothing to trifle with. Tax dollars and jobs. Never mind the fishermen and recreational boaters and their formerly quiet little community. The Industrial Commission could have found a way to require the company to move away from the Lake. But it didn’t.

Now I’m told the Bureau of Land Management also bears some responsibility. The BLM manages the minerals under Lake Sakakawea owned by the federal government. That’s where the oil is that Slawson is going after, with miles of horizontal pipe under the lake.

The BLM could have required Slawson to move the well pad half a mile farther away from the lake and the community. But they said, in an environmental assessment, “that would not meet the purpose and need of the project in that it would not permit (Slawson) to fully develop the minerals located on their lease due to the technical challenges of a longer directional drilling length.”

So it looks like the BLM’s main concern, like that of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, was for the oil company, not for the land, the water, the air, the wildlife and the people. Welcome to the Wild, Wild West.

Now there’s more news. There was a legal notice published in the paper last week by the North Dakota Industrial Commission that read like this:

Case No. 25984: (Continued) Application of Slawson Exploration Co., Inc. for an order authorizing the flaring of gas from certain current and future wells completed in the Big Bend-Bakken Pool, McKenzie and Mountrail Counties, N.D., for a temporary period of time and to allow the volumes of flared gas to be excluded from the calculations of statewide and county wide flare volumes as an exception to the provisions of Commission Order No. 24665 and such other relief as is appropriate.

The hearing is Aug. 24. According to Jan Swenson, executive director of Badlands Conservation Alliance, there is no listing of wells in the case file yet, but sometimes companies submit exhibits prior to the hearing date. With these applications it could be a few specific wells, or an extraordinary number.

“The ‘current and future’ language is always a red flag to me,” Jan said. No kidding.

So we don’t really know if Slawson is applying for permission to flare the 11 wells at Van Hook. But anybody want to take bets? I guess if I had a cabin at that little community, I’d probably want to go to the meeting and ask some questions. Because the roar of a gas flare is something to behold. But then, maybe the town won’t need street lights for a while, saving on their electric bill.

You know, it was bad enough that the Industrial Commission granted a permit to Slawson to drill these wells on the doorstep of this little community — and at the top of their boat ramp. Granting permission to flare would be beyond the pale.

Oh, one more thing. What’s up with allowing this “flared gas to be excluded from the calculations of statewide and countywide flare volumes as an exception to the provisions of Commission Order No. 24665” business?

Each month, the Industrial Commission’s Oil and Gas Division releases figures on the amount of gas being flared statewide, as a percentage of all the gas being produced. Are they not counting all of it? WTF? Here’s the policy, Order # 24665. Time to find out what these “exclusions from the calculations” are.

RON SCHALOW: Port Whine, Part 1

I’m not sure how many days since Rob Port, famed columnist, political pundit and radio personality was featured on the Forum’s front page, but I’m still blind in my left eye.

Seriously, I was a little startled to see Port’s mug on the front page of the Fargo Forum, for more reasons than one. Port’s visage always makes me jump, especially the screen-filled face shot they use on the Forum webpage. His pupils are the size of half-dollars and not evenly spaced, which is disconcerting.

I also wasn’t prepared to read a minihagiography of an employee of less than two years. The professional lying scold has hit the big time now. We’ll skip my third thought.

“Now I say that when I write something that’s a fact, it’s a fact, because I check them out and am convinced that it’s fact. I also put in some opinion and people may disagree with the conclusions that I draw but I think that the one thing even most of my critics and maybe detractors will agree upon is that if I say something is a fact, it’s a fact.” Lots of baloney in that paragraph.
My father spent 25 years as a real journalist and never became the story until he retired. It never occurred to him that he should be. They also have real journalists, real columnists, real writers and real editors — many of them fond of punctuation and spelling — at Forum Communications, but I don’t know any of their life stories. I know that most of them like commas, though.

Port referred to Bismarck attorney and former agriculture commissioner Sarah Vogel as a retread and doddering. Both assertions were LIES. I wrote in an letter-to-the-editor, that Vogel could probably tip Port over with one hand.

So, what’s my real problem? Port gored my ox, and he just laughed it off. I found that annoying. I never become unannoyed. I didn’t even know this clown until he poked me in both eyes. Then, Port bravely blocked me from commenting on his blog, his blog’s Facebook page and his Twitter account. I’m not sure if my emails get through. I don’t think he liked being called a liar, and he had no response that wasn’t another lie, so he stuck a couple of sausage-sized finger in his ears. The BS front-page article was the last straw.

“While I have no doubt that marijuana does have some medicinal uses, those uses are pretty narrow and would only benefit a sliver of the population.” What a crock.

So I started reading his archive of gems and began following Port’s blog. Was this how the young lad operated on a regular basis? The answer was yes. He starts with a premise and then uses every deceitful rhetorical device in the book, including lying, to prove his point, or whatever he was indoctrinated to believe. Some days, I can pretty much guess who/what topic the hack is going to choose on a given day, and his take. Smearing individuals, or groups, is a noxious specialty of the weasel.

“What proponents of indiscriminate enrollment growth  people like Bresciani (NDSU President) want is a race to the bottom.” There are two lies in that statement.

Then, I alerted the other lib#$%@ Marxist commie snowflake cucks that I knew at the time and got scolded for reading Port’s Sayanythingblog at all. I thought he should be called out for his lies. Nope, they said. He makes money with every click, I was told. And if we don’t go to the blog, he’ll go away. How did that work out? He failed up. Plus, he wasn’t surviving on click-through Amazon ads. Now, he has been normalized by the largest media organization in the state.

“So why then should we have a law forcing a graphic designer to create a pro-gay logo for a homosexual congregation in Fargo?” LIE. St. Mark’s is not a homosexual congregation; it is a Lutheran Church.
I’m not going to rehash Port’s history of professional propagandizing. Real journalists, like Jim Fuglie And C.S. Hagen already did it .

A Short (Well, Sort Of) Introduction To The Koch Brothers Influence In North Dakota

FOURTH ESTATE FOR SALE

It’s hard to be humble

“I think the folks at FCC brought me on because they recognize that I am a talented and well-connected opinion reporter with a lengthy track record of producing solid analysis and breaking news.”

“I even get them, even though I would argue that in my 13th year of writing about North Dakota politics I’m probably one of the most consequential reporters/commentators in the state.”

“(I’m) not just any blogger. (I’m) One who is widely respected around the state, and writes for a large audience”
“Who is Ron Schalow? He’s a 9/11 truther for one.” FALSE.

Did Forum Communications not vet this joker before taking him on? Does the veracity of their writers not matter? Or is it a feature that Port has no ethical boundaries? So why? I sure don’t know. Why do grown men dive over rows of bleachers for a $4 baseball? Why does Kevin Cramer hate white pantsuits?
Port won Native American Stereotype of the Month honors for this bull$#!*

Anyway, the Forum decided to do a puff piece on Port. I’m going to guess that Port’s numbers need some boosting, which were never as big as Port likes to boast, anyway. Either he doesn’t know the difference between a visitor and a unique visitor, or he’s hoping that none of his readers do. The Forum knows. Advertisers know, and they know which demographics are consumers. Complaints about having an amatuer on staff must be piling up, too. I’ve never claimed to be Hemingway, but Port never gets better as a writer.

Port has such a lengthy history of deceit that only a fraction can be noted here, and I doubt a book would be a big seller. A few specks will have to do.

The Big Smear

In one of the most despicable, sleazy, twisted, Portlike smears I’ve ever seen, Port took offense, for some reason, at an effing letter-to-the-editor in the Grand Forks Herald by Heidi Czerwiec. I use her name because she has personally written on the mob maelstrom Port set upon her. She was the perfect target. A liberal arts college academic and a woman. Port is not unaware of the hatred the alt-right has for education, higher-ed, pointy headed professor’s, poetry, females and anyone who might use less than glowing language about guns.

“On March 21, the story was written up on the Say Anything Blog, a local right-wing outlet, which condemned Dr. Czerwiec’s “overall paranoid attitude.” At 12:47 p.m. the next day, the story — linking to the Say Anything Blog — was reported by Campus Reform, a project of the conservative Leadership Institute that counts Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed and Karl Rove among its alums. By the end of the day, Fox News had republished Campus Reform’s piece, and Tucker Carlson’s The Daily Caller had published an article, also linking to the Say Anything Blog.

At 8:50 the next morning, Glenn Beck’s The Blaze had a piece up about the controversy, as did the conservative Washington Times (which linked to Campus Reform) as well as Alex Jones’ Infowars with “Paranoid Anti-Gun Professors Calls 9-1-1 Terrified By ROTC Exercises,” where a commenter added Czerwiec’s campus email and office phone.” — Attack on Academia

Port went to the well four times, on, I repeat, an effing letter-to-the-editor, because it was a ratings winner, misleading all the way. And all of the losers circled in like vultures to enter crude comments below each post. Forum Communications has a code of conduct for commenters on their Facebook pages, but anything goes on the FCC owned Sayanythingblog. And Port has an Algonquin Roundtable of howler monkeys to guard SAB’s comment section from sanity, and try run off anyone that might disagree with the mob.
“Maybe a better strategy for UND would be to hire professors who function as adults.” The smarm oozes from Port’s fingers. The joke is on him, though. Dr. Czerwiec’s family had already chosen to follow other opportunities before the school year even started. She still has a doctorate, and a good job, while Port will always be a moron, renting from his parents.

DAPL
The state led Port around by nose during the DAPL protest. He claims that the government can’t do anything right, but he played the stenographer for the state of North Dakota and law enforcement, without fact checking what he was publishing for months. Nonwhites get the clicks. He detests Native Americans and loves oil tycoons, more than he hates government, it appears.

When a young lady nearly had her arm blown off, during spray the crowd with cold water night on the bridge, alarm bells sounded, the spin was written, and it was, “Oh my, who is the most gullible typist in North Dakota?”
“How can we get this story out? Rob Port?” Maj. Amber Balken, a public information officer with the North Dakota National Guard, said. “This is a must report.”

Cecily Fong, a public information officer with the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, replied saying she would “get with” the blogger for wider dissemination.” — HPR
Port didn’t even know that TigerSwan was in charge, so he doesn’t know if half of what he wrote was true. The paramilitary mercenaries spied, infiltrated, instigated, screwed with the signals of electronics, concocted falsehoods and fed the truffles to Rob.

His excuse; “Was there anyone operating under the impression that this “wasn’t” happening?”
Evidently Port was operating cluelessly because he kept on buying whatever was slipped into his burrow. Or maybe he knew. Either way, no reputable newspaper operation would put up with such shenanigans.

“Communication between the various agencies attempts to paint the activists known as water protectors as criminals, out of state troublemakers, and sexual deviants, a theme widely reported by the state’s media, particularly on the Forum Communication Company’s right-wing editorialist Say Anything Blog, managed by Port.” — HPR
If anything remotely criminal happened within a hundred miles of Cannon Ball, the Portweasel let innuendo do the talking. He does love his innuendo. OMG! Thirty cattle are missing! Oops, never mind. They were hiding behind that elm tree.

Now, we find out that “the firms Delve and Off the Record Strategies, apparently working on contract with the National Sheriffs’ Association, worked in secret on talking points, media outreach and communications training for law enforcement dealing with Dakota Access opponents mobilized at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota.”

“Pfeifle (Mark. Off the Record Strategies) agreed in his email and suggested following the press conference with outreach to friendly media outlets to amplify the message.”

“One of those outlets was the Say Anything Blog, run by Rob Port, who the next day, Oct. 6, ran a blog post featuring many of the themes found in the talking points:Over 85 Percent of Arrested #NoDAPL Protesters Are From Outside of North Dakota.”

In his email, Pfeifle had suggested reaching out to Port, who also hosts a radio show on WDAY AM-970 and regularly wrote blog posts in support of Dakota Access during the Standing Rock standoff. When Port’s piece went online, Pfeifle wrote an email that same day to the Delve team, sheriffs’ association staff, Hushka, and others asking an association staffer to share the piece on social media.”

These are the same characters who helped G.W. Bush rationalize the Iraq war. Was Port once again clueless, or was he in cahoots?

Oil

Big oil loves Rob, and Rob loves them back. He just so happens to have the same opinions as the North Dakota Petroleum Council, which simplifies things, I imagine. There isn’t anything the oil industry can do, in or to, North Dakota that Port cannot — or is unwilling — to justify, including the death of people. There is no spill, no exploding train, no employee death, or human misery, that the Portweasel can’t excuse.

“Currently the North Dakota Industrial Commission is considering a draft field order for conditioning Bakken oil before shipment. The rules would not only set a target for stabilization (measured by vapor pressure) but would also dictate how the industry would go about hitting that target.” Conditioning isn’t stabilization. Port never understood that, but he just types away.

The Republicans cut taxes for oil barons in 2015, and Port has been lying about it ever since. “You cannot call it a tax cut when the net result is an increase in tax burdens.”

“Remember over the last few years when the enemies of oil development were hyping oil train derailments?” Nope. Because nobody was hyping anything. News outlets were reporting on the explosions, which seemed normal, since they were danger to public safety. Another thing Port doesn’t understand, so he made it up.

In 2015, the fatality rates in the Bakken were nearly seven times as high as other oil fields in the rest of America, but Port wasn’t having anything to do with those facts. “Yes, worker deaths have increased over those years, but so has oil activity.” He didn’t mention the comparison to other oil plays. Lying by omission and a lame excuse. Poor hiring, poor training, poor management, ignoring the rules, lack of proper equipment, hurry, and asking workers do dangerous things past normal procedures, are the usual culprits, when there is an excess of injuries and deaths. The workers aren’t Port’s concern.

“Left-wing activists have taken to using the term “bomb trains” and are now blaming public officials for not seeking regulatory retribution for the derailments from the oil industry.” The term “bomb trains” was coined by those in the industry, who knew what was getting poured into Bakken tanker cars, and public officials are there, supposedly, to protect the public. They’ve decided not to.

Time to call them Obama trains,” blared Port’s headline. He links to an article that says that Obama dropped the ball on stabilization, which he did, deciding to trust North Dakota to do the right thing, which was stupid.

The Obama administration weighed national standards to control explosive gas in oil trains last year but rejected the move, deciding instead to leave new rules to North Dakota alone. — Reuters

What Port was likely too dense to figure out, or remember, was mocking me for demanding that the state do exactly what he was now faulting Obama for not doing. (The comment section below this post looks odd because I was blocked, and my gentle polite remarks were deleted)

“Schalow has accomplished is really nothing other than organizing a few of his fellow conspiracy mongers and cranks.” We’re so unorganized, I can’t even find the others.

“NGL’s make the oil more volatile, which makes it much easier to ignite. The NGL vapor will expand away from the toppled cars along the ground, which causes a much larger burning area. Stabilized oil does burn, but it DOESN’T “EXPLODE”. We as a country have been transporting stabilized oil by train every day since 1960, how many of these type of accidents do you remember? Without the NGL’s there is no reason to rebuild all the rail transport cars or change what we are doing.” — Myron Goforth; president of Dew Point Control LLC., Sugar Land, Texas

Port doesn’t like to mention it’s only Bakken oil trains that have exploded, (because Bakken crude is not stabilized) how many have blown up, or how many people have died. He doesn’t get upset because they detonate, but because news media notices the 300 foot fireballs and tells everyone.

“… activists have taken to mapping the “blast zones” around railroad tracks, and claim that 25 million Americans live in them.” Because it’s true, and you would think the government would show such concern. We have signs for everything else.

And Rob is just so darn proud of anything flaring. “And when (Amy) Dalrymlpe(sp) does get around to mentioning declines in gas flaring, she puts it in the context of an industry spokesman exaggerating a bit.

Isn’t a 24 percent reduction in the volume of gas flared over the last two years news? It seems like news to me.”

Burgum

Doug Burgum played Port like a jukebox throughout his campaign for governor. Burgum would invite him into his office, and Port glowed. He asked Port for advice, and Port’s ego grew even larger. Then, Burgum would do something that Port didn’t like, such as wearing a cowboy hat (beats me), and there would be three days of debate on whether the future governor was an actual cowboy. It was fun to watch the Minot High trained Port give advice to a guy that knows Bill Gates, and thousands of actual smart people.

It’s the Wind Dude

“Over the last couple of weeks, we North Dakotans, forced to celebrate the anniversary of our nation’s independence through a smoky haze blown down from Canadian wildfires, were left appreciating our state’s normally pristine air quality. That’s because it disappeared on us, at least temporarily.

After decades of coal development and a more recent uptick in oil-related industrial activity in western North Dakota — including more flaring of natural gas than anybody is happy about — it took the tragic wildfires our northern neighbors are grappling with to foul our air.”


Identity politics Port-style

According to Port, unless the political candidate is snow white, male and straight, identity politics are at play.

“And while I detest identity politics, there’s no questioning that it is a factor in how people cast their ballots. Having a woman on the ticket is going to increase Burgum’s appeal among a pretty large demographic of voters. People should vote based on things like gender or skin color, but they do.”

“Per Nowtazki’s(sp) article, Democrats acknowledge having put at least some effort into recruiting Native American candidates, and we’ll in November how that works for them politically. Identity politics are an ugly reality in American politics, but a reality none-the-less.”

“Finally, identity politics do matter. Many on the right are convinced that Rep. Oversen only got her appointment because she is young and female. “

“Particularly hilarious is state Rep. Kyle(sp) Oversen — titular chairwoman for the North Dakota Democrats and a not-yet-graduated law student — lecturing Senator John Hoeven over his call for Obama to refrain from nominating a candidate to replace Scalia.”

He has a particular animus for Kylie Oversen, second only to his hostility towards Senator Heitkamp.

He doesn’t like college students

This is standard language for the alt-right, and Port is probably extra angry because he couldn’t hack the college thing. He often cherry picks an anecdote that fits his narrative, then ascribes whatever irks him to a whole group.

“If this generation of college-aged toddlers want to shirk their responsibilities to pay for their debts and tolerate diverse opinions, then perhaps we should acknowledge that they are, in fact, children and treat them as such..”

“This is the social media generation, after all, which gets its news from smirking comedians and internet memes.”

“Millions upon millions of American students attend university as a way to prolong the high school experience and postpone adulthood.”

Coming in Port Whine, Part 2

Pipelines, science denial, hate crime denial, discrimination denial, Kevin Cramer, Heidi Heitkamp, Trump, e-cigarettes, Trumpcare, Bresciani, NDSU football, Michelle Obama, and more …

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Newest Bridge Across The Little Missouri State Scenic River. What The …?

For the past 50 years or so, there have been just five places where you can drive your car across a bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River: in Marmarth on U.S. Highway 12, on Pacific Avenue in the city of Medora, on Interstate 94 just north of Medora (two bridges, one going each way), on U.S. Highway 85 south of Watford City (the Long-X Bridge) and on state Highway 22 north of Killdeer (the Lost Bridge).

The Billings County Commissioners have made news for the past 10 years trying to build a new bridge over the Little Missouri north of Medora. Their initial idea to put it beside the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park got shot down, and they’ve been involved in a long and costly EIS process, which has settled on a spot about 12 miles north of Medora, on the Short Ranch. The draft EIS should be released shortly, and a public comment process will follow the release.

The county has spent millions of dollars, probably enough to actually build the bridge, on the EIS process. Its still going to have to get permission from the Short family to put the bridge on their ranch. That’s unlikely to happen, so more time and money will have to be spent in a condemnation proceeding. When —  or even if —  the new bridge will be built remains to be determined by a court, and by the Commission.

They should have talked to Wylie Bice.

A couple of years ago, Bad Lands rancher Wylie Bice needed a way to get across the Little Missouri on his ranch northwest of Killdeer, so he just went ahead and built a bridge. It’s 9½ miles straight east of the Long-X Bridge, which crosses the river right on the eastern edge of the North Unit of the national park.

Here’s Wylie Bice’s story.

Bice ran a small trucking company from his ranch in northwest Dunn County before the oil boom. When the boom came, Wylie took advantage of it, buying some trucks, hiring some drivers, contracting with a lot of truck owner-operators and making a lot of money hauling water to and from oil wells.

In 2012, he sold the company to a Florida trucking company named Quality Distribution for — you ready? — somewhere between $80 million and $100 million. By the time the dust settles, the final deal will likely be closer to the second number than the first.

The Commercial Carrier Journal, a trade publication, said at the time of the sale, Bice employed 500 drivers and trucks and was “one of the largest haulers of fresh and disposal water and oil in the Bakken shale. Bice is principally an asset light business, as the company primarily utilizes independent contractors who own their own equipment.”

Well, there’s a North Dakota success story. Kind of like that guy from Fargo who sold his software company to Microsoft.

Bice had maintained his ranching operation on the east side of the Little Missouri State Scenic River and flush with cash after selling the trucking company, he bought the adjoining Hellickson ranch on the west side of the river. Both pretty good-sized spreads.

And now he had a problem. With ranches on both sides of the river, he needed a way to get back and forth, to move cows, cut and haul hay and operate his irrigation systems.

So without really telling anyone, except the Corps of Engineers, from whom he needed a permit, he just went ahead and built himself a bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River.

The Corps made him jump through some hoops, but he hired an engineer familiar with the process, and by the spring of 2013 he received permission from the Corps to build the bridge and was able to start construction. He’s been driving on it for about three years now.

I drove across the bridge last month. It’s a pretty substantial bridge, 240 feet long, with two large stone/concrete abutments holding it up, much like those under the railroad bridge across the Missouri River in Bismarck-Mandan, although much smaller. It’s well-engineered, though, and when I first came over the hill on the east side of the river, my reaction was “Holy S**t, look at that.” Since then, everyone I’ve shown the photo to has said pretty much the same thing.

Not only does he have a bridge, but he has a water depot there for storing water he’s taken from the Little Missouri State Scenic River, ostensibly for irrigation. The depot consists of four large plastic-lined pits, two on each side of the river.

Setting up an irrigation operation on BLM land.
Setting up an irrigation operation on BLM land.

The day I was there in June, it appeared there were two hired men pumping water from the river to supply the irrigation system. At least that’s what they said they were doing when I stopped to visit with them.

He does have a couple of water permits, and I looked at them on the North Dakota Water Commission website. It shows that he hasn’t taken any water out of there in the past 20 years. The Water Commission’s website can be a little cumbersome, so maybe I’m not reading it right, or maybe the info is buried somewhere else on the website, or maybe someone hasn’t been reporting the water they have taken from the river. Someone named Wylie Bice. I think there are some guys over at the Water Commission who read my blog, so maybe they’ll do a little checking for me.

But what Bice doesn’t appear to have is permission from the Bureau of Land Management to put a bridge on their land, and a road to it, and two water storage pits.

See, Bice owns the land on the east side of the river, but the BLM owns the land on the west side of the river. Likely the grazing rights went along with the purchase of the Hellickson ranch, but the federal government — you and I — own the chunk of land there — about 100 acres — and likely Bice has been paying rent to run cows on it. There’s quite a bit of BLM land nearby, probably also part of Bice’s grazing permit.

The folks at the BLM office don’t seem to know anything about the bridge or the road or the water pits, but they should, since things like that would certainly need “permission slips,” and I’m guessing they’re checking on that right now as well.

The folks at the North Dakota Department of Transportation, which is responsible for inspecting bridges to make sure they are safe, doesn’t know anything about the bridge, and maybe they don’t have to, since it is a private bridge. Still, it’s on public land, and you’d like to think the DOT knows about all the bridges in the state, especially one of this size, crossing our state’s only designated State Scenic River.

The folks in the Dunn County Courthouse do know about the bridge, but weren’t involved in permitting it, since they don’t maintain the roads to it. None of them have been out to see the bridge, from what I can tell. In fact, I may be the only person other than Bice, his hired men, the engineers and the guys who built it who have actually seen the bridge. Too bad. It’s an engineering marvel out there, deep in the heart of the North Dakota Bad Lands.

The Little Missouri Scenic River Commission, had it been active when this was built, would surely have been involved in passing judgment on it, but the commission has been inactive for about 15 years under the Hoeven and Dalrymple administrations. Our new governor, Doug Burgum, has ordered it reactivated, though, and it might hold its first meeting as soon as this August. I’d hope there would be some discussion of this bridge at that meeting.

My friends and I, and my wife and I, canoe the Little Missouri State Scenic River pretty often, but since the boom we’ve avoided that stretch of the river. Too much noise, too much dust, too many flaring oil well pads. On our last trip, maybe10 years ago now, we stopped short of the bridge—  which wasn’t there yet —  at the ranch of my friend, Curly Haugland, which is about three miles west.

There might have been a canoer or two by there since it was built, but I sure hadn’t heard any reports from any of them about a new bridge. It’s not on the Forest Service map, which is the Bad Lands user’s bible, so I suspect it would be quite a shock to come around a bend in the river and see a brand-new bridge there. Maybe one of these days, if the river ever gets any water in it …

Well, that’s what I know for now. I can’t give you directions to the bridge, but I can tell you the legal address is the west half of Section 33, Township 148 North, Range 97 West. That’s it on the left, on the Forest Service map. White is private land, yellow is public land — owned by the BLM. You’ll have to get a Forest Service map and follow the winding gravel, and sometimes two-track, roads. The road from the east is a private road through private land, so you probably should go there from the west, across public land. And you probably shouldn’t cross the bridge, like I did, because you’ll be trespassing.

I’ll be checking back with state and local permitting agencies, and I’ll report back here if I learn anything new.

Y’know, with all the things I’ve learned, and all the stories I’ve heard, about the Bakken Oil Boom, this takes the cake.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Refinery Company To PSC: ‘Screw You’

Of all the sleazy companies to show up in North Dakota’s oil patch in the nearly 10 years since the Bakken Boom began, the sleaziest of them all has to be Meridian Energy, the company proposing to build an oil refinery called the Davis Refinery just three miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  Here’s why I say that.

Normally, when a company wants to build a large energy plant, like a refinery, it applies for a siting permit from the North Dakota Public Service Commission.  Most good companies do that. It’s the law. In the case of oil refineries, if the refinery is going to be capable of processing more than 50,000 barrels of oil per day, they have to obtain a site compatibility permit from the PSC.

Here’s Section 49-22 of the North Dakota Century Code:

“The legislative assembly finds that the construction of energy conversion facilities and transmission facilities affects the environment and the welfare of the citizens of this state. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that the location, construction, and operation of energy conversion facilities and transmission facilities will produce minimal adverse effects on the environment and upon the welfare of the citizens of this state by providing that no energy conversion facility or transmission facility shall be located, constructed, and operated within this state without a certificate of site compatibility or a route permit acquired pursuant to this chapter. The legislative assembly hereby declares it to be the policy of this state to site energy conversion facilities and to route transmission facilities in an orderly manner compatible with environmental preservation and the efficient use of resources. In accordance with this policy, sites and routes shall be chosen which minimize adverse human and environmental impact while ensuring continuing system reliability and integrity and ensuring that energy needs are met and fulfilled in an orderly and timely fashion.” (My emphasis added.)

Well, that’s reasonable enough, I guess. Take care of the people and their environment while providing the energy we need. The two should be compatible. You’d think that it might also keep a refinery away from the boundary of a national park.

The proposed Meridian refinery is a 55,000-bpd facility. The Davis Refinery stock offering from January 2017 says: “Meridian Energy Group Inc. (“Meridian” or the “Company”) is a closely held South Dakota corporation that will construct and operate the Davis Refinery, a 55,000 barrel per day high conversion crude oil refinery on a 715-acre site in Billings County, near Belfield, North Dakota, in the heart of the Bakken formation.”

In its application for a state water permit, Meridian is requesting enough water — 645 acre feet per year — to supply a refinery processing 55,000 barrels of oil per day.

In its application for an air quality permit from the North Dakota Health Department, the company makes its projections on how much pollution they will be producing based on a 55,000 barrel per day refinery.

Well, OK then, it’s going to build a refinery processing more than 50,000 bpd. So the company has to get a siting permit from the PSC, right? Well, not according to the company’s lawyer, Lawrence Bender (I’m going to stop just short of calling him sleazy, too, but I will say the sleazy company found the right lawyer).

Bender wrote a letter to the PSC in which he says, “Please be advised that at this time, Meridian is designing its refinery to be capable of refining twenty seven thousand five hundred (27,500) barrels per day. Further, at this time, there is no design in existence nor plans to propose a design for more than 27,500 barrels.”

Huh? The company had told two other state agencies and all potential investors that the refinery is going to process 55,000 bpd. Oh, he does go on to say, “Though Meridian does not presently have any designs or plans to propose a Refinery with capacity beyond 27,500 barrels of oil per day, Meridian considers it a possibility that such addition could be made at a later date.”

Good grief. A “possibility?” Somebody better tell those investors looking at the stock prospectus for Meridian Energy that the refinery they’re investing in is only a “possibility.”

The PSC members and their staff ain’t stupid. They took note of that and wrote back, “The Commission has received information that Meridian’s application to the State Water Commission for a Water Appropriation Permit is based on a facility capable of refining 55,000 barrels per day. Further, Meridian’s applications to the North Dakota Department of Health for the construction of a new crude oil refinery are based on a facility with a nominal processing capability of fifty five thousand (55,000) barrels per day.”

The letter went on, “Since Meridian is filing applications with other state agencies for permits based on a facility that can refine up to 55,000 barrels per day of oil, and since an oil refinery of that capacity is jurisdictional to the Commission for siting under North Dakota Century Code chapter 49-22, it appears that the proposed refinery is jurisdictional under the siting law. Please let us know whether Meridian agrees, and if so, when we can expect an application.”

Well, good for Patrick Fahn, director of the PSC’s Public Utilities Division, who wrote that letter. He sent it March 1. It took lawyer Bender about three weeks to respond. He said, basically, “Screw you, PSC.”

Explaining the water permit request, Bender reiterated that Meridian only planned to build a 27,500 bpd, but again said again “it is a possibility” that the plan could expand in the future. And in response to the question on the air quality permit, he said basically, “the Health Department made us do it.” Well, of course, they did. They knew what Meridian was up to. They ain’t stupid either.

Bender then went on to say that under an old attorney general’s opinion, issued in 1976 by then-Attorney General Allen Olson, “applications to different state agencies concerning the same energy conversion facility need not be identical.”  What? That made no sense to me, so I went and read that opinion, and didn’t quite read it that way, but then I’m not a lawyer. I know former Attorney General (and Governor) Olson reads this blog. Maybe he’ll remember. Attorney General’s Opinion 76-130.

Bender’s conclusion: Meridian doesn’t believe those two applications trigger a site compatibility review by the PSC, and it will not seek a certificate of site compatibility. So it plans to just go ahead and start building a refinery, without PSC permission.

So we’ve got a standoff right now.

I’ve talked to two of the three PSC members about this, and they’re mulling it over. They gave it a run, and the company told them to get lost. So until Meridian puts a shovel in the ground, there’s not much the PSC can do. It’s pretty obvious that the reason Meridian doesn’t want to apply for a site compatibility permit  is that it believes the PSC might NOT issue a permit for this location if it applied for one. Well, that seems pretty stupid. Now Meridian has really pissed off the PSC. We’ll see how this plays out.

Meanwhile, Garland Erbele, the state engineer over at the Water Commission, did take some action, announcing he was granting a water permit for only 90 percent of the water Meridian had applied for. His logic: If he only gives Meridian enough water to build a refinery capable of processing 49,999 barrels of oil per day, then Meridian can’t build its 55,000 BPD refinery. There, take that, Meridian!

Cute. Real cute And pure pap. You don’t think Meridian might have a “fudge factor” of 10 percent or so in its request?

And what was Meridian’s reaction to that? Hey, no problem. Here’s a statement from their press release to potential investors: “William Prentice, Meridian CEO, commented on the Allocation Draft Permit, ‘We thank the Water Commission for the thoroughness and fairness of their review. While the recommended allocation is slightly less than we requested, I’m confident that we will employ our resources and determine how to make the Davis Refinery even more efficient, like we’ve done in so many areas thus far.’”

And the company’s engineer, Dan Hedrington, said in the same press release, “The Recommended Decision is the draft permit the Engineer’s Office has been working toward. The document appears very thorough and complete …”

In other words, Thanks, Mr. Erbele. That’ll be just fine.

Really, Erbele’s little stunt is beneath the dignity of a state government agency. That’s playing Meridian’s game. You want to send Meridian a REAL message, Mr. Erbele? Grant them a permit for enough water to process the 27,500 barrels per day.

Meridian says it “might” come back later and decide to expand its refinery capacity to 55,000 bpd, but right now, it’s at 27,500. So give them that much. And tell them if they decide to expand, you “might” give them more water.

There’s precedent for that. Way back in 1974, one of Erbele’s predecessors, Vern Fahy, who worked for Gov. Art Link and Agriculture Commissioner Myron Just (the two elected officials on the State Water Commission), got an application from Michigan Wisconsin Pipeline Co. for water to build a whole bunch of coal gasification plants in western North Dakota. The company requested 68,000 acre feet (Yeah, kind of makes that refinery look like small change, doesn’t it?) and the Water Commission granted them just 17,000 acre feet — a fourth of what they wanted. Wise men, Link and Just. In the end, they didn’t even need that much for the one plant they built — which, by the way, is still in operation today.

Further, they attached a whole list of conditions to the permit. At the time, North Dakota didn’t have much in the way of mined-land reclamation or air pollution laws, so they wrote some, and attached them as conditions to a water permit. Most of those conditions were eventually enacted by the Legislature and became law.

An aside — that water permit and its conditions became the entry point for then Tax Commissioner Byron Dorgan’s involvement in North Dakota environmental matters. Just and Link had Dorgan ask Attorney General Allen Olson if those conditions could stand the test of law. Olson opined that he thought they could, and so they were valid. Credit those four men for leading the way to protecting North Dakota’s environment. We could use four more of them today. Link’s gone, but the other three are still around. Wonder if they’re busy — today’s government leaders could use some advice about what to do with a rogue company like Meridian.

Meanwhile, today’s leaders need to do what those four great leaders did in the 1970s — circle the wagons and sit down and figure out what to do about this sleazy company. Gov. Doug Burgum and Public Service Commission president Julie Fedorchak need to display some leadership here. They need to get all the players in the room — the PSC, the Water Commission, the Health Department, and maybe even the State Securities commissioner (don’t be surprised if THAT office needs to engage at some point) — and figure out how to get this company in line. Surely, Dorgan, Link, Just and Olson would not allow a company such as this to build a refinery three miles from the national park named for our country’s greatest conservation president.

An oil refinery and a national park are not compatible. And we can’t move the national park.  we can move the proposed refinery. That’s why we have Section 49-22.1 of the North Dakota Century Code. Let’s enforce it.

Pretty much everybody would agree that building a refinery in North Dakota is a good idea. Pretty much everybody would agree that three miles from a national park  is the wrong place to build it (except for three people — the Billings County commissioners, who get to collect massive property taxes from it).

There’s going to be lots more to this story. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Meanwhile, there is now a 30-day comment period for people who commented on the application last year to submit more comments. Seems like a goofy law — anybody should be able to comment on action of a governmental body, any time. But then I was one of those who commented last year, so I get to comment again. Here’s my letter.

Garland Erbele, State Engineer

900 East Boulevard

Bismarck, ND 58505-0850

July 13, 2017

Dear Mr. Erbele,

As a follow-up to my earlier 2016 comments on the application of Meridian Energy for a water permit for 645.2 acre feet of water per year (enough to process 550,000 barrels of oil per day) for its proposed Davis Refinery, I want to tell you what I think of your decision to only grant them a permit for 90 percent of the water they requested.

It is pure pap. That’s what I think of your decision. It’s a cute little gambit that’s just as transparent as their request. Government shouldn’t be cute. Government should just stick to the numbers. Here are the numbers:

Meridian says it is going to build a 27,500 barrel per day refinery. In a letter to the PSC, the firm’s attorney states unequivocally, “Please be advised that at this time, Meridian is designing its refinery to be capable of refining twenty seven thousand five hundred (27,500) barrels per day. Further, at this time, there is no design in existence nor plans to propose a design for more than 27,500 barrels.”

So, Mr. Erbele, if that’s their plan “at the present time,” I suggest you give them enough water “at the present time” to operate a refinery capable of processing 27,500 barrels per day. If, as they also say in their letter, they may “sometime in the future” propose an addition to the refinery to process more than the 50,000 barrels per day which would trigger a site review, then they can come back to you “sometime in the future” and ask for more water.

Do you really believe that cutting their request by 10 percent will keep them from achieving the full potential of their proposed 55,000 barrels per day facility? No responsible engineer on their end would cut an estimate that close on a refinery not even completely designed yet. Surely they have built in a “fudge factor” in case their original water use estimates are too low. Just take a look at the press release they sent out to their investors — 90 percent will be just fine, thank you.

We all know the game Meridian is playing with North Dakota state agencies to avoid having to undergo an environmental assessment and plant siting review by the PSC. For a state agency, the North Dakota Water Commission, to join them in their game is beneath the dignity of government regulators.

Respectfully,

Jim Fuglie

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Sellout Of Van Hook Park

WARNING: In this article, I’m going to rip some North Dakota politicians a new one. This isn’t personal, and it isn’t partisan. They’ve got it coming because of malfeasance in office. I’m not going to pull any punches. They deserve it. I know I’ve been pretty critical of some of our state’s leaders lately. Sorry. But we’ve got some really bad shit going on in our state, and someone has to talk about it. Our leaders are failing us.

This article appears in the current issue of Dakota Country magazine. The big boys who read that magazine possess about 90 percent of the guns and three-quarters of all the testosterone in North Dakota, so if they can stand my rants, so can you.

Now, first a little background.

There’s a little resort community called Van Hook Park on the north end of Lake Sakakawea, named for the town that formerly existed nearby until it was flooded by the waters backed up behind the Garrison Dam. It’s nothing fancy. Two hundred or so trailers and cabins, a bait shop and convenience store, gravel streets and a campground with 100 RV sites.

The Van Hook recreational community sits on land partly owned by the Corps of Engineers and partly by the Mountrail County Park Board. There’s a park manager and a cabin owners association to manage the facilities there. At times, when the walleye bite is on, the boat ramp next to the campground and cabin sites is the busiest boat ramp on Lake Sakakawea.

Fishing has been good over the years in what is known as the Van Hook Arm of Lake Sakakawea. Cabin owners have been happy, and users of the park and boat ramp, who come from all over western and central North Dakota, spend happy weekends there. Other than the hum of outboards during the day, and the singing of shorebirds and warblers at daybreak and dusk, it’s been a pretty quiet place. Until now.

This spring, an oil company named Slawson Exploration moved in beside the resort, and with its huge machinery, began clearing a 25-acre site at the top of the boat ramp, which will be home to an 11-well oil pad. The site is just a few hundred yards from the park and the homes in the community. Drilling could start there any day now.

Mountrail County officials, cabin and trailer owners and members of the Friends of Lake Sakakawea learned of the development last summer, long after it been permitted by the North Dakota Industrial Commission. And they’re pretty concerned.

Concerned because in December 2012, the same company had a huge blowout on a well a little ways east of the resort, which resulted in more than 50,000 gallons of saltwater and oil mist spewing almost a mile onto the ice of Lake Sakakawea.

“Our greatest fear,” says Terry Fleck, president of the Friends of Lake Sakakawea and a cabin owner at Van Hook, “is what happens if they have a blowout at the boat ramp when there are 200 boats on the water waiting to return to the resort?”

The thing is, this didn’t have to happen. You might recall a few years ago, North Dakota’s Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem wrote an administrative rule that he brought to the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in North Dakota, to restrict drilling within a mile of what he called “extraordinary places,” — places that should be protected from industrial development. The list included state and national parks, wildlife refuges, the Little Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea.

In early 2014, he took the rule, with great fanfare, to a meeting of the Industrial Commission, being chaired at that time by the governor, oil industry sycophant Jack Dalrymple. It didn’t fly — Dalrymple and the oil industry objected. And Stenehjem quickly backed away. Instead he proposed, and the commission adopted, a “policy” of trying to keep the oil wells a mile away from the “extraordinary places,” except that the policy only applied to proposed wells on public land. And it did not have the force of law, so it had no teeth.

And so, proposals to put wells right up against national park borders or Lake Sakakawea’s shore were just fine with Stenehjem, Dalrymple and Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring, the third member of the Industrial Commission, as long as they were on private land. Even those on public land only get a little scrutiny today — and can still be approved. Basically, it’s a policy with no teeth. Which is just what the oil industry likes.

And in the era of horizontal drilling, where wells can be placed anywhere and pipes run as far as three miles underground to get that oil, it didn’t take long for the oil industry to ferret out private landowners willing to take tens of thousands, often hundreds of thousands, of dollars for little pieces of land for the placement of oil wells beside lakes, rivers, wildlife refuges and parks.

I was at the meeting when the “policy” was adopted, and I can assure you that no one there was surprised by Stenehjem’s retreat at Dalrymple’s insistence. We all knew that the oil and gas industry had contributed more than $600,000 to Dalrymple’s election campaign two years earlier, and their shill in the governor’s office was not going to let them down.

Stenehjem and Goehring were richly rewarded by the industry in their subsequent election campaigns later in 2014. In early 2015, after they had been re-elected, Slawson Exploration submitted a request for a drilling permit for their Van Hook project, and it was approved by the same three men who had adopted the toothless policy a year earlier — Dalrymple, Stenehjem and Goehring.  Because Slawson had found, and rewarded handsomely, a landowner who had land right up to the lake, they were going to drill on private land and the “policy” didn’t apply to them.

Slaswon kept it pretty quiet, until the federal government issued a call for comments on the project last year, a necessary step because the government owns some of the oil under the lake. Slawson leased the drilling rights under the lake, and once Slawson had the minerals and a piece of private land on which to place the wells, there was no stopping them.

When the news got out last summer, the Friends of Lake Sakakawea and Mountrail County sent a letter to Dalrymple, Stenehjem and Goehring asking them to order that the pad be moved back away from the lake. They never received a response.

Slawson did agree to a meeting with the Friends of Lake Sakakawea last summer. The group’s president, Terry Fleck, said the company agreed to move the well pad back “a considerable distance” from the lake. They left the meeting feeling they didn’t need to protest further.

Turns out that was a mistake. Slawson had a different definition of “considerable” than the Friends group had. Locals learned that only when the stakes for the pad went in this spring — less than a fifth of a mile from the boat ramp and just a few hundred yards from the trailers and lake homes in the resort.

Fleck, Mountrail County State’s Attorney Wade Enget and a Mountrail County commissioner all told me this spring that they had done everything legally possible to move the project away from the lake. But their hands were tied by the Industrial Commission.

When Slawson asked the county to upgrade the road to the site, the county basically told them to go jump in the lake. Slawson then built its own road to the site. And there are signs on both ends of the resort community telling Slawson to keep out of town. The sites are so close to the town, though, that the noise from dirt work, drilling and well service operations will pretty much ruin the ambiance of the previously sleepy little community. And the lights from the 24-hour operation will eliminate the precious dark night skies that lake residents and campers have come to value.

And there’s more. When Slawson finished the dirt work on its pad at the boat ramp on the west side of the village this spring, it moved over to the other side and began building another one. That caught everyone by surprise. It seems that when they applied for the one at the boat ramp, they also applied for, and were granted, one on the east side of town, again just a few hundred yards from the shoreline and residences.

Through all the public furor and meetings with the Friends organization last year, the oil company never mentioned they were going to drill on both sides of the town.

It’s really hard to imagine what the Industrial Commission was thinking when it allowed the company to bookend the little resort community with oil wells. There’ll be at least 14 wells, possibly 17, and maybe a saltwater injection well, within shouting distance of the resort’s residents. The cacophony from the dirt work, then the drilling, with thousands of trucks hauling fracking water (I’ve read it takes a thousand truckloads of water to frack a well), and then the trucks to service the wells, is almost beyond comprehension. Not to mention the disaster if (when?) another blowout occurs.

According to a story in the Bismarck Tribune this spring, Slawson operates 300 wells in the Bakken and has reported 142 oil fluid spills. It has been fined by the state of North Dakota in only five of those cases, by — you guessed it — the Industrial Commission, although the little fines the state issues are more of a bother than a financial burden to the company.

But the federal government didn’t let them off so easy. The EPA had to be called in to investigate numerous Clean Air Act violations, and it found Slawson had inadequate vapor control systems on its storage tanks at oil and natural gas well pads, resulting in an estimated 15,000 tons of methane and other poisonous gases per year being released into the clean North Dakota air.

Just last December, the EPA fined Slawson $2.1 million and is requiring the company to install $5.6 million worth of vapor control systems and gauges on its well sites here. That’s still small potatoes to the company, though, just another cost of doing business. After all, Slawson will spend more than $100 million to develop the two Van Hook well sites.

Now, with the sellout of the community by the Industrial Commission a fait accompli, and with drilling under way, the county and the resort residents are putting together a list of things they’d like Slawson to do to try to mitigate some of the damage and danger to the lake and the resort community — and the chaos it is creating in this quiet little bay on Lake Sakakawea. We’ll know what those things are later this year. There are a couple of things we know now, for sure, though. You can’t mitigate evil politicians. And you can’t mitigate oil company greed.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Little Missouri State Scenic River Is In Trouble Again

North Dakota’s Little Missouri State Scenic River lost most of its scenic protection this week when Gov. Doug Burgum reversed course and joined the members of his State Water Commission in opening the entire river to industrial water development.

Last month, Burgum declared upstream areas of the state’s only official State Scenic River — the areas surrounding the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park — off-limits to industrial water use and told State Engineer Garland Erbele to “immediately review, modify and make transparent the process and requirements for any future issuance of temporary use permits for nonagricultural uses.” Read: Permits for fracking water.

That came after it was revealed that the Water Commission staff had issued more than 600 illegal industrial water permits and then had state law changed in the waning days of the 2017 Legislature to make such permits legal. The Little Missouri State Scenic River Act, passed by the 1975 Legislature, prohibited the use of Little Missouri water for industrial purposes. The bill passed this year changed that.

Friends of the river urged Burgum to veto the legislation, but he declined, instead issuing his policy of only allowing those permits downstream of the National Park.

In issuing that policy, Burgum said in a letter to me and others:

“As governor, a North Dakota resident and a property owner on the Little Missouri River, protecting our environment and being responsible stewards of our natural resources is a priority for me personally and for our administration.”

Well, so much for “being responsible stewards.” Thursday’s action by the Water Commission took care of that.

Erbele did his “review” and came up with a recommendation 180 degrees from Burgum’s policy, opening up the entire Little Missouri State Scenic River basin to industrial use.

And in a puzzling move, the governor then took that recommendation to the Water Commission this week, instead of acting on it himself, as he had done in declaring his earlier policy.

Even more puzzling, the governor did not question the policy recommendation, and voted to implement it, opening up the entire river to industrial development and leaving friends of the river shaking their heads in wonder — and anger — at his inconsistency.

Now, I suspect that the governor, if questioned, would say he wanted broader input on the policy — input from his State Water Commission members. But the Water Commission only heard one side of the story — the oil industry’s side — at Thursday’s meeting. Opponents of the policy, who wanted to keep industrial development away from our State Scenic River and from the National Park, were not given a chance to speak to the issue.

Several of those opponents sat through Thursday’s marathon session for five hours, waiting for a discussion of the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act, as promised on the Commission’s agenda. But they were caught off guard when a Water Commission staff member presented a recommendation from a list of four options — the three that were not adopted offered some protection for the river — and the Commission adopted the one opening up the river for development after a brief discussion. Only Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring voted against the recommendation, citing concerns over industrial use trumping the needs of farmers and ranchers for irrigation.

I was among those who thought it unusual for a major new state policy to be adopted by an important state agency without any public discussion or any chance for making a case against the policy before a vote was taken. But then, if we can adopt a national health care policy written behind closed doors, I suppose nothing surprises any more.

There was some discussion among Commission members before the vote. Commissioner Harley Swenson of Bismarck questioned the urgency of adopting the policy, given low water levels in the Little Missouri this year and pointing out that there were another 1,000 wells awaiting fracking right now, and perhaps wells along the river could wait until there is more water available and the list of wells awaiting fracking shrinks.

But Commissioner Larry Hanson, also of Bismarck, jumped in on behalf of the oil industry, saying that if they don’t get the water out of the Little Missouri, it’s a “long haul” to have it brought in from somewhere else. Old, white –haired, mostly bald heads around the table nodded in assent, and a vote was taken quickly then to approve the policy.

I point out the white-haired, mostly bald heads because the Water Commission is — or should be — an embarrassment to North Dakota government. All seven appointees to the board are old white males, many well into their 70s, at least one 80. To be fair, all were appointed by governors other than Burgum, and Burgum let four of them go after Thursday’s meeting, opening up their spots to new members he will appoint later this summer. Maybe some women? Maybe some under 70?

In another disappointing moment in the meeting, Burgum made a lame argument about the sequence of events leading up to the change in the law and Thursday’s adoption of a new policy. The illegal permits issued for industrial use had been going on “for decades,” Burgum said, and when a staff member discovered it, they quickly stopped doing it.

“There was no cover-up,” Burgum said. They admitted what they did was wrong, he went on, and brought it to the attention of the Legislature, which fixed the law to make those permits legal now.

Yeah, well, the governor was blowing smoke. Here’s what really happened. More than a year ago, I wrote an article for my blog and for Dakota Country magazine about the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission. During this year’s Legislative Session, a friend of mine, who had read the blog, told me he had heard a mention of the Scenic River Commission on the floor of the Legislature. I went looking, and sure enough, there was an amendment to the State Water Commission budget bill changing the law to allow industrial use of water from the Little Missouri State Scenic River, which had been prohibited since 1975.

I called the Water Commission, got a couple of the staff responsible for issuing water permits on the phone and asked what they were up to. They told me that they never knew about the law, in spite of working there for decades, and that one of their staff had read my story and brought the law to their attention, so they were getting it changed. I asked if they had issued any industrial permits to take water for the oil industry from the river, and one of them blurted out, “Yeah, more than 600.”  I’m guessing those two wished they had been a little more circumspect — I doubt they had told the Legislature that, when they asked to change the law — but it was too late. The cat was out of the bag.

So I wrote a story about it, and, when the bill passed the Legislature, a whole lot of people put heat on the governor to veto it. He didn’t, but he wrote the policy I mentioned earlier about keeping the industrial permits away from the section of the river near the National Park, the policy which was overturned Thursday with the governor’s blessing.

So what’s next?

Right now, the Water Commission staff said Thursday, there are four industrial water permit applications pending, asking for water for oil well fracking from the Little Missouri. I looked them up on the Water Commission’s website. All are between the North and South Units of the National Park, one just a couple of miles from the Elkhorn Ranch. One has asked to start pumping water immediately, one Sept. 1, and two Nov. 1. The permits, once approved, are good for only 12 months, so I’d guess they will be pretty eager to get going.

The oil companies have negotiated what I suspect is a pretty sizeable fee with the ranchers for access to the river on their land and building some kind of water depot into which they’ll pump the water. And then the water trucks — as many as a thousand trucks for each well — will thunder down the hill to the depot and load up and take their water to the well that needs fracking. At least I think that is how it works. I asked the Water Commission today what their intentions are for those four permit applications. Here’s the response:

“They all are in pending status. Based on the decision of the State Water Commission yesterday, they are eligible to be reviewed for approval. If approved conditions will be applied similar to the temporary industrial permits that have been issued downstream of the Long-X bridge. A threshold and maximum pumping rate will be developed for this reach of the river based on the Medora gage.” 

Well, I don’t suppose they’ll be pumping much water from the river right now if they are approved — which they could be. Right now, about noon on June 23, 2017, the river gauge at Medora shows there are just over 3 cubic feet per second (cfs) flowing through Medora. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, which maintains the gauges and keeps the records, that’s the lowest flow for this date in the 60 year history of keeping records on the river. The previous low was just under 8 feet in 2004, and the mean flow is 1150 cfs. In other words, the river is just about dead in its tracks. A severe drought, like the one we’re in right now, will do that. But if it rains …

I’m going to send this article to the governor to let him know how unhappy I am with him. He’s the only one who can protect the Little Missouri State Scenic River valley right now. It wouldn’t hurt if he heard from a few more people, too. It’s pretty easy. Just click here. 

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Our Rich Heritage; Our National Park

Here’s a short follow-up to a story I did a couple of weeks ago about the proposed Davis Refinery, the big industrial plant the California company Meridian Energy wants to build next to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

You’ll recall the North Dakota Department of Health sent Meridian a letter a month ago questioning some of the emissions projections Meridian used in its application for an air quality permit. NDDOH sad it was stopping its review of the application until Meridian provided more information about that.

Health Department Air Quality Division Director Terry O’Clair listed a number of specific concerns the Department had with the projected emissions numbers, and then concluded his letter with this:

“Given the information provided in the application, more detailed information must be provided prior to the Department continuing its review of the application. For a Facility of this size, in this industry, and at this proposed location, the refinery should be designed according to health, safety, economics, and operability. After a thorough design is completed, emissions should then be estimated based on the actual equipment/operations included in the design. This will provide added assurance regarding projected emissions from the facility. This assurance is vital given the location of the facility …”

“After a thorough design is completed.”Well, that seems to make sense. Design your refinery, and then, based on that design, give us your estimates. Absent that, NDDOH would be approving something based on blue sky, not science.

So this week, Meridian responded to O’ Clair’s concerns in a 13-page, single-spaced letter with 90 pages of attachments, refuting every concern O’Clair listed and accusing the Department of using outdated information as the basis for stopping the review of the application until Meridian provided better information (read: real numbers based on real equipment and an actual design).

And then Tom Williams, vice president of Permitting and Planning at Meridian, concluded his 13-page letter with this:

“In closing, Meridian believes that this letter confirms the emissions estimates submitted in the April PTC Application Amendment. Thus, Meridian believes this submittal fully addresses the items brought up in NDDOH’s letter dated May 15, and does so at a level of detail that is technically and legally justified (Note: there’s that “legally” thing again). Meridian therefore requests that the NDDOH accept and approve our emissions inventory and that NDDOH moves forward in making a full determination of completeness of Meridian’s Davis Refinery PTC application documents.”

The arrogance of these people just takes my breath away. It’s not enough that they want to build an oil refinery next door to a national park, but they want it done RIGHT GODDAM NOW! They don’t seem to understand that for most of us it is not just about how many emissions they make next to the park, it is the fact that they are making ANY emissions next to the park.

They also don’t seem to have read Terry O’Clair’s letter very carefully: “After a thorough design is completed.” Twice in his letter, Meridians Williams confirms that the design is not complete.

Responding to O’Clair’s concern about possible leaks from the facility, Williams writes that such information requires “a level of design that is not available at this stage of the project nor would it typically be available until overall plant design is essentially complete.”

And later he writes, “In summary, based on anticipated actual design and size of facility, Meridian anticipates the final component numbers will be at least 20 percent lower than the ‘model’ counts used in the EPA guidance document which were utilized in the current emissions estimates.”

In other words, North Dakota Department of Health, “Just trust us.”

Well, excuse me, Mr. Williams, but what part of “After a thorough design is completed” don’t you understand?

I asked the folks at the Health Department what happens next. Will they resume the review of the application, based on the 13-page letter and the 90 pages of attachments? Well, no.

First they will review the 13-page letter and the 90 pages of attachments. That’ll take a few weeks. Then they will decide whether they believe Meridian’s numbers, absent a completed design. If so they will begin reviewing the whole application. That’ll take months. If not, they’ll send another letter to Meridian, reminding them that they want the numbers based on a completed design, not speculation.

What about Meridian’s claim that the Health Department used outdated information? The Health Department will take a look at that. A Department spokesman said the scientists there are “pretty up to date on those things.”

But, you know, this whole thing should boil down to more than just numbers. It really shouldn’t matter if particulates in the air are 20 or 30 or 50 parts per million. There shouldn’t be any particulates in the air next to a national park. There should not be a giant plume of steam and gases causing not just chemical pollution, but visual pollution, next to a national park.

There should not be hundreds of oil trucks a day kicking up giant clouds of dust heading into a refinery to dump their loads. What does all that say about a state that would allow that to happen? What kind of message is North Dakota sending, that we care so little about a park named after, and dedicated to, the greatest conservation president ever, that we would allow that to happen?

North Dakotans are vest button-popping proud of their national park and justifiably so. The Bad Lands of the Little Missouri are our most cherished landscape, but if you read your park history, you know that we would not have that national park had not Roosevelt lived and ranched here as a young man. It’s his conservation legacy that got us a national park, and we need to defend and protect that legacy until our dying breaths.

No, it’s about more than the numbers. Our state’s leaders need to sit that California company’s executives down, look them in the eye, and say “Listen, assholes, move that damn refinery somewhere else. You don’t need to put it beside our national park.” Or something like that.

Gov. Art Link.
Gov. Art Link.

Today’s leaders need to remember the words of Gov. Art Link because right here, right now, they apply as much as they did in the 1970s:

“We do not want to halt progress; we do not plan to be selfish and say North Dakota will not share its energy resources. We simply want to ensure the most efficient and environmentally sound method of utilizing our precious coal and water resources for the benefit of the broadest number of people possible.”

Gov. Doug Burgum. Let’s hope the resemblance is more than just physical.
Gov. Doug Burgum. Let’s hope the resemblance is more than just physical.

“And when we are through with that and the landscape is quiet again, when the draglines, the blasting rigs, the power shovels and the huge gondolas cease to rip and roar and when the last bulldozer has pushed the spoil pile into place and the last patch of barren earth has been seeded to grass or grain, let those who follow and repopulate the land be able to say, our grandparents did their job well. The land is as good and in some cases, better than before.

“Only if they can say this, will we be worthy of the rich heritage of our land and its resources.”

Our rich heritage. Our national park. Are you listening, Gov. Doug Burgum?

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Meridian Refinery Application Is On The Shelf — Where It Belongs

The North Dakota Department of Health has called “Bullshit!” on Meridian Energy’s application to construct its Davis Oil Refinery three miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

In fact, in a strongly worded letter to Meridian, Terry O’Clair, Director of the Division of Air Quality, says he has actually stopped the review of the application until Meridian sends the Department information to prove the numbers are accurate that they use to justify building so close to a national park, which has Class 1 Air Quality Standards.

In a letter to Meridian Vice President Tom Williams, O’Clair writes, “During the Department’s ongoing review of the application, some concerns have been identified. These concerns need to be resolved to the Department’s satisfaction prior to the Department continuing its review of the application.”

The major sticking point for the Health Department seems to be Meridian’s request to be considered as a “minor” source of pollution under Prevention of Significant Deterioration of federal air quality rules. That designation eases up some of the federal oversight of the refinery’s pollution potential, considering the fact that it is next to the national park.

But O’Clair writes that the PSD rules classify a petroleum refinery as a “major” source, and he says that the application by Meridian “does not provide sufficient information to support classification of the facility as a minor source.”

To get into specifics, O’Clair writes that the Department has major concerns with the numbers provided in the application. That’s a nice way of saying “Bullshit.” For example, he says that the emissions of carbon monoxide  and nitrogen oxides projected by the company “are considerably lower than established emission rates for similar equipment in the industry” and that there is no data indicating that the levels Meridian is projecting have ever been achieved at an existing refinery.

The letter goes on to say the Department is concerned about volatile organic compounds leaking from the refinery, about oily water sewer drains and questions the use of some documents from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, describing the potential for leaks of pollutants from the refinery, as an industry standard.

So the Department did some calculations of its own and determined that using the Texas documents, the refinery would not meet the minor source requirements. O’Clair even sent the calculations along with his letter to Meridian, saying “Based on the information above, NOx, CO and VOC emissions from the Facility appear to be significantly underestimated and the Department questions, based on the level of information currently provided, that the Davis Refinery can operate at capacity and maintain emissions of all pollutants below the minor source level of 100 tons per year.”

In other words, “Bullshit.”

So, in conclusion, O’Clair writes, “Given the information provided in the application, more detailed information must be provided prior to the Department continuing a review of the application. For a facility of this size, in this industry, and at this proposed location, the refinery should be designed according to health, safety, economics and operability.”

There were a lot of technical terms in O’Clair’s letter, and I’m an English major, not a STEM major, so I turned to Craig Thorstenson, the permitting supervisor of the Health Department’s Air Quality Division, to make sure I understood what was going on.

Craig said that they reviewed the Meridian application, and it became clear that the design process wasn’t far enough along for them to continue to reviewing the application. It’s going to take hundreds, probably thousands, of hours of review before a permit can be issued, and he wants to see the design before he commits his staff to that kind of time on the application.

O’Clair’s letter ended on a note of skepticism (my polite term for “Bullshit”).

“After a thorough design is completed, emissions should then be estimated based on the actual equipment/operations included in the design. This will provide added assurance regarding projected emissions from the facility. This assurance is vital given the location of the facility and the significance of the facility as a major source under the PSD rules. If the facility is determined to be a major source under the PSD rules, additional requirements (including but not limited to, a Best Available Control Technology review) must be satisfied prior to issuance of a permit.”

Twice he brought up the possibility of the refinery being a “major” source of pollution.

Thorstenson said work on the application has stopped for now.

Well, that letter left the Meridian folks pretty pissed off. Their letter of response included things like, “Given the level of detail that you are now requesting, which we believe is unusually detailed, especially in light of any other recent U.S. refinery air permit application. . . .” and “Meridian and its advisors believe the level of detail required by NDDOH far exceeds the normal level of detail required for such a permit in this industry . . .” and “it is uncommon to have such level of detail at this stage in the permitting process.”

Well, cry me a river, Meridian. This time I’ll call “Bullshit!” What other “recent U.S. refinery air permit application?” You’ve said yourself that there hasn’t been a full scale refinery built in the U.S. since 1977. That’s not too recent.

Meridian Vice President Williams even questions the Health Department’s calculations, accusing them of using “overly conservative emission factors” that don’t reflect “the current state of technology.” And then he said that his company would analyze the Department’s calculations and provide further justification of their own estimations.

I swear, this is one of the whiniest letters I’ve ever seen from a high-ranking officer of a major corporation. He said, “Again, even though it is not typically required at this time,” the company will provide new emission figures. And here’s his closing paragraph:

“I wish to reiterate that Meridian believes its Application and Amendment to its PTC Application have fully and adequately addressed each of the items raised in your May 15 letter, and at a level of detail that is technically and legally justified. Thus we trust that, with the additional requested information specifically addressing each and every concern and issue you have identified, the NDDOH will quickly accept and approve our emissions inventory and will expeditiously move forward in making a full determination of completeness of our application documents.”

WTF? “Technically and legally justified?” What’s that mean? The lawyers are engaged already? Approve this or we’ll see you in court?

And “each and every concern and issue you have identified?” Sounds like s snot-nosed kid talking back to his baby-sitter.

Look, Meridian, as far as almost every North Dakotan I know is concerned, you can take your emissions inventory and Texas regulations and shove them where the sun doesn’t shine (or more politely, just take them back to California, where the sun does shine, and stay there with them). You’re asking to put a refinery next door to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and telling us to “just trust us — we won’t pollute.” Well, one last time. Bullshit!

You know, I’ve had some trouble trusting the higher-ups at the Health Department from time to time, (In fact, I’m betting there’s a wailing and gnashing of teeth around the corporate board table at Meridian, with cries of “Bring back Jack Dalrymple — we never had these problems when he was in charge”), but I’ll take the numbers from the environmental engineers at the North Dakota Air Quality Division over the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality any day. Texas? They don’t regulate anything down there.

For now, Meridian’s construction permit application is on a shelf in the Health Department. But if I had to bet today, I’d bet that there will be a refinery somewhere near our national park someday. How near depends on how diligent we are.  If it happens, I want to be damn sure it doesn’t ruin my park. We’re all counting on O’Clair and Thorstenson, and the whole Division of Air Quality, and the whole North Dakota Department of Health, and the governor they all work for, to make sure it’s done right.

Or better yet, to find a way to convince them to move it 10 miles down the railroad tracks. That sounds like a good job for a new governor.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Who’s Looking Out For The Little Missouri State Scenic River — Redux

I’ve given some more thought to the issue of Little Missouri River water permits since I last wrote about it May 3.

I reported then that Gov. Doug  Burgum had signed into law an amendment to the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act, making industrial use of Little Missouri water legal for the first time since the act was passed in 1975. But at the same time he sent word over to the State Water Commission, which issues water permits in our state, not to issue any of those permits in the upstream reaches of the river — between the North Dakota-South Dakota border and the Long-X Bridge at the north Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Quick geography lesson for those not familiar with the Little Missouri: It rises in the hills north of Devils Tower in Wyoming and flows north through Montana and South Dakota, entering North Dakota in the extreme southwest part of the state, and flows north and east into Lake Sakakawea east of Killdeer. Carving the North Dakota Bad Lands, home to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, along the way.

It’s that stretch between the North Unit of the National Park and the big lake that Burgum has left open for industrial development. It’s no coincidence that the focus of oil development along the river is along that stretch.

That’s his concession to the oil industry. In fact, his own Water Commission staff admitted to a reporter for The Dickinson Press the other day that “That’s where most of the oil industry activity has been.” Commission engineer Jon Patch said “They’ve been using local supplies that then pipe the water to nearby wells that are ready to be fracked.”

Using that water illegally, until now, it should be pointed out. There’s still the issue of those 600 permits that were granted by Patch and his staff, illegally, over the past 10 years or so. It appears that nothing is going to be done about that. As far as the state is concerned, that’s water under the bridge, so to speak.

I asked the governor’s spokesman, Mike Nowatzki, if there were going to be any repercussions for the noncompliance with state law by the Water Commission staff. You’ll recall from an earlier story I wrote the staff said they were “unaware” of the law that prohibited them from issuing industrial water permits from the State Scenic River. I pointed out to Nowatzki that, generally, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Nowatzki wrote back, “As for the “noncompliance” issue, I’m not aware of any related legal actions/proceedings and I’m unable to provide any legal opinions.”

Well, he’s right, but there is someone who can provide legal opinions — the attorney general. So I fired off an e-mail to Liz Brocker, Wayne Stenehjem’s spokesperson: What is going to be done about the “noncompliance” with the law by the State Water Commission staff for the past 10 years?”

Liz answered politely: “With regard to the questions … whether there is a criminal violation of a statute would be under the jurisdiction of the county state’s attorney who would make a determination based on the evidence following an investigation. The Water Commission is a state agency headed by the governor, so any determination on whether further action is necessary or appropriate would properly need to be addressed there.”

Well, I thought her response was pretty nifty, in tossing the ball in two different directions: It’s the governor’s job to determine if he wants to fire someone, and it’s the local state’s attorney who would have to investigate and file any charges for violating the law.

Nowatzki had sort of already indicated that the governor was not interested in punishing the Water Commission staff. I thought about contacting the Burleigh County State’s Attorney and asking him if he was going to pursue this, but we’ve been in the middle of crime wave here since the oil boom began, and he has enough stuff on his plate right now without chasing after some doofus state employee who claims he didn’t know about the law that regulates his job.

I asked a former Water Commission staff member this week whether it was really possible that the engineers didn’t know they were breaking the law. The response was, yes, it’s possible. But it was also possible that they were operating under orders from above to help out the oil industry regardless of the law. Not much happened at the Water Commission during the Dalrymple years without clearance from the governor’s office. One of the most important things the governor could do to enable the oil boom was to make sure they had water for fracking. Without water, there’s no fracking. Without fracking, there’s no oil boom.

So that’s where things stand for now, at least as long as Burgum is governor. He has shown some concern for the Little Missouri State Scenic River but has also accommodated the oil industry. We’ll keep an eye on the process. We’ll see how many industrial water permits get issued. And we’ll certainly ask anyone who decides to run for governor in the future whether they’ll keep Burgum’s restrictions in place.

THE GOOD NEWS

Now, then I want to also revisit a piece of good news about the Little Missouri. Last December, just as the governor was taking office, I took advantage of an old friendship with his new chief of staff (I think he calls her the CEO), Jodi Uecker, and urged her to ask her boss to please revive what I have always considered an important board, the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission. I had written a couple of blog pieces about it earlier last year and placed articles in a couple of other publications I write for, and I shared those with her. You can read them here and here.

Well, Jodi listened. And her boss listened to her. And a couple of weeks ago, he instructed the state engineer, who heads the Water Commission staff, to do just that. It might take a while to get going. It has met only once since 2001 (only coincidentally, the year Ed Schafer, the last North Dakota governor to give a rat’s ass about the Bad Lands and the Little Missouri, left office and turned the governor’s office over to the Hoeven/Dalrymple administration).

The way it works is, as outlined in the Little Missouri Scenic River Act of 1975, Section 61-29 of the North Dakota Century Code, each county commission in the six Bad Lands counties appoints one member, who must be a rancher who owns property adjacent to the Little Missouri River, and those six serve with the state engineer, the State Parks and Recreation director and the director of the State Health Department on the nine-member commission. The six ranchers elect a chairman from among their ranks, and the Parks director serves as the recording secretary for the commission.

Officially, it is the duty of the chairman to call meetings, but unofficially, it has been the Parks director who really gets it done (the current chairman, Alvin Nelson of Grassy Butte, has been dead for several years). I went on a search for meeting minutes about a year ago, and what I learned is that the only meeting held since 2001 was actually called in response to a request from the KLJ Engineering firm, to seek the commission’s blessing for a proposed new river crossing in Billings County. That was August 29, 2007. Nearly 10 years ago.

At that meeting, KLJ, working for the Billings County Commission (Medora is the county seat, in case you’re wondering where Billings County is) said as soon as it had prepared the Environmental Impact Statement for the project, it would get back in touch with the commission to present its findings and seek permission to go ahead with the project.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the meeting minutes:

“The specific purpose of requesting the meeting, KLJ noted, is to seek guidance from the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission, if the river crossing structure alternatives comply with the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act … KLJ concluded their presentation and asked whether any of these types of river crossings (low water crossings or bridges) would be in violation of the Little Missouri River Act.”

“The Commission noted as this project progresses and specific alternatives are recommended for both structure type and location, the commission will need to be presented with detailed information fully addressing the scope and impact of this project to the Little Missouri River. Only then will the commission consider the project for compliance with NDCC 61-29.”

Well, how about that. Now, 10 years later, after numerous delays, KLJ is just weeks, maybe days, away from releasing that EIS. And it is pretty obvious, from those minutes, that both the engineering firm and the state of North Dakota took the responsibility of the commission pretty seriously back in 2007. I hope they still do.

KLJ will be coming looking for the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission to present it to. I hope the state engineer, who has been tasked with reviving it, can get it done in time to weigh in on the project because it has the potential to be the worst environmental disaster ever to hit the Bad Lands.

You see, there was no oil boom — not even a hint of an oil boom to come — back in 2007, so this was a pretty routine request. A new bridge for the ranchers and tourists to use. No one envisioned a miles-long caravan of trucks kicking up thousands of tons of dust a day and scaring off every type of wildlife within eyesight and earshot, while using this crossing of the Little Missouri River to move their water, sand and oil.

So while Gov. Burgum is willing to sell off the northernmost portion of the river, which makes me nervous because it contains Little Missouri State Park, arguably the state’s most fragile and scenic park, which means we’re going to have to keep a close eye on water permit requests for that stretch of the river, he seems committed to offer some protection for the upstream parts of the river.

I hope he kicks the state engineer in the ass and has him get this done right damn now. The oil industry, the Billings County Commission and the bridges they want, wait for no man. The Little Missouri State Scenic River needs all the oversight it can get. That was the intent of the 1975 Legislature. I’ll report back when the EIS is released.