A visit to Medora, N.D., can be memorable. Grand Forks photographer Russ Hons was there this past weekend, taking in the Medora Musical, a Tigirlily concert and the awesome sights of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Here are just a few of the images that caught his eye. (Check out more photos from Russ Hons here.)
It’s said you can’t go home again. That was even the title of a book by Thomas Wolfe, and others — Proust and Hemingway among them — came to the same conclusion.
I accept the premise logically, but not emotionally.
So this past Sunday, I again found myself driving 442 miles from my current residence in Bloomington, Minn., to Harvey, N.D., and from there to nearby Wellsburg. I spent my formative years in this area before, like most of my friends, moving on to the larger world.
News reports in the Twin Cities had suggested North Dakota was suffering a drought, but I saw no evidence of that in this area. The weather was perfect — mild temperatures, bright green fields, and glorious blue skies.
The above photo was one of the first I shot, a view from the viaduct over the Soo Line tracks in Harvey, N.D. The yard is far from being as busy as it was when I was a kid. But it’s still a nice and prosperous town.
Having said that, I also saw and photographed some things there and in Wellsburg that gave me pause. Stay tuned for more on that topic in later FB posts.
One other thing for sure I noticed.
I ain’t as young as I once was. The total mileage on the two-day trip totaled nearly 1,000 miles, and it sort of tuckered me out.
We had the most delightful guests this week for supper. My mother, Marian Crook, and her sister, my godmother, Junette Henke, came for the afternoon. Fresh walleye was on the menu.
While Jim pounded away on his keyboard in his office, we three women sat at my dining room table with stacks of papers and maps and books and went down Slope County memory lane.
My aunt is one of the authors of “The Slope Saga.” In the photo above, they are looking at my copy of the book, which I treasure, and refer to frequently, to which my mother also contributed. What a great thing those folks did when they published this book.
I remember as a youngster, spending the night at my aunt’s Slope County ranch, sleeping on the sofa bed and waking up to see my aunt “burning the midnight oil,” reading and working on the book, and wondering, “does this woman ever sleep?”
When I told her this, she chuckled. She and my Uncle Alan brought home boxes filled with The Marmarth Mail and sifted through it for material, along with stacks of the submissions of everyone from the county. I guess they had a system. It still boggles my mind.
Now, when I look at the stacks of articles and books in my “office,” I laugh and think of them. One thing really does lead to another, it turns out. Junette encourages me to write my own stories, and so I do.
They both are still as sharp-witted as ever, playing a fierce game of pinochle at their respective assisted living centers, and I mine their memories for interesting tidbits and answers to puzzles I have, things that I had little interest in as a teenager, but want to understand better now. Junette says she now sees no reason to take some of this to the grave and is very eager and open with the details of heretofore untold stories.
They both also have a terrific sense of humor, and I think they are pleased that I am so interested in North Dakota’s rich history, and in Slope County’s (although I live now in Burleigh County). Certainly, they are interested in the little nuggets I dig up with resources beyond their wildest imagination.
While driving along in the car, my mother and I talked about the news reports (and my husband’s blog account) of the State Water Commission granting more rights for industrial use of the Little Missouri River water. My mother said, in her octogenarian wisdom, “people need to understand that ‘water is gold!’ ” She is dismayed by what she reads is happening. She lived through the Dirty Thirties and the Depression.
As for me, I have vivid memories of the crisis created at our ranch when we would have difficulties with the well. We had lovely, clean water from that well, and we hung a metal cup on the windmill so that anyone going by could pull on the hand pump and take a quick drink. I remember that the Getz’s, our nearest neighbors, had soft water, but ours was HARD and filled with iron. When I left for college, I struggled somewhat to adjust to the Dickinson, N.D., water. I was, no doubt, used to the taste of our Slope County well water.
But I digress.
By the time supper was served, Aunt Junette had gone back in her memory and drawn an old trail on my map, a trail I will write about in a future blog. The day ended with much laughter, and many fond memories were shared. And I knew more about my ancestors than ever.
For dessert, we ate the last of the weekend’s juneberries, with a little ice cream, and we all agreed that these were “drought juneberries,” a little small and hard and not as tasty or juicy as they should be. We all enjoyed the treat nonetheless.
I told them a funny story about the recent harvest. When Jim and I were in the patch and my bowl was almost full, I got tangled in the brush. I knew I was going down, but I managed to keep the bowl upright! Now, that is getting my priorities right. The berries survived and I was unhurt.
Thank you so very much, Mom and Junette. I do love you both so!
In a major victory for conservationists, and for the North Dakota Bad Lands they work hard to protect, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland of Bismarck ruled this week that the state of North Dakota and four western North Dakota counties have no right to go in and build roads in areas of the Little Missouri National Grasslands that have been inventoried as “roadless areas” and identified as “suitable for wilderness designation.”
Hovland dismissed the lawsuit filed nearly five years ago by North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Billings, Golden Valley, McKenzie and Slope counties because a 12-year statute of limitations for the state and counties to open section lines for development had expired. The state and the counties can appeal the decision, and this may end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, but that’s a lengthy and expensive venture at a time when budgets are lean because of the oil bust. We’ll see if the attorney general is willing to gamble away more of the state’s tax dollars pursuing this.
Here’s a little background. Over a long period of time (40 years), going back to a management plan for the Grasslands written in 1976 and 1977, and followed by numerous updates in public notices issued by the Forest Service in the years since, the Forest Service has let it be known that they consider several areas of the Grasslands off limits to motorized travel.
But when the oil boom came, county commissioners out west decided to challenge those restrictions in court, hoping to get access to section lines in those areas to build roads so oil companies could get in there and drill. When Stenehjem heard about it, he jumped right in and joined the lawsuit, and in a heroic gesture, said, “We’ll handle it from here in Bismarck.”
So in September 2012 Stenehjem, as he loves to do, sued the United States government, claiming that the state should be allowed to build roads on every section line in the state (although, in a magnanimous gesture, he said he was OK with not building roads in Theodore Roosevelt National Park).
I went to his office to ask him about that, and he claimed he was just defending “state sovereignty.” Well, I didn’t believe him then, and I don’t believe him now. In reality, he was just putting on a good show for those western counties, beefing up his political support out west in case he ever decided to run for governor.
The agenda for the county commissioners from the oil patch was different. They wanted to stop a movement by conservationists to get official wilderness designation for about 50,000 of those roadless areas, a proposal called Prairie Legacy Wilderness. If the lawsuit was successful, they’d send their graders and scrapers in there and build some roads, and take care of those pesky conservationists and their wild ideas.
The Forest Service and its U.S. Department of Justice attorneys were having none of that. They set out to prove that the court had no jurisdiction in the case because North Dakota and the counties had missed the deadline for filing their suit by more than 25 years, something Stenehjem might have thought about before he wasted all that state money on the case.
I went to the federal courthouse this week to look at the judge’s opinion and what I found in the case file was 190 separate court filings, with hundreds and hundreds of pages of arguments by the state and the federal government. It looked to me like the counties that originated the lawsuit really didn’t have to spend much time or money on this, which is a good thing because they’re overwhelmed with the crime wave to hit their part of the state as a result of the oil boom. But you and I taxpayers footed the bill for lawyers for both sides.
The Forest Service is operating the Little Missouri National Grasslands under a management plan written in 2001, and that plan sets aside about 5 percent of the million acres it manages as roadless. Ninety-five percent of their land is open for oil development. The remaining 50,000 acres or so — places like majestic Bullion Butte, isolated Kendley Plateau, the historic Long-X Divide and Twin Buttes, looking down into Theodore Roosevelt National Park — are walk-in areas for hikers, deer hunters, birders, photographers, cross-country skiers and campers. And for now at least, they’ll remain that way, in spite of state government’s desire to put an oil well on every section of land in western North Dakota.
Before I quit and go have a toast to justice served and a breath of fresh air blowing into the beleaguered Bad Lands, I want to point out two pieces of irony resulting from Hovland’s decision.
- The law says that the 12-year statute of limitations only applies to lands on which the government or its lessees have made some investments or improvements, such as range improvement, tree planting, mineral activities, farming and wildlife habitat improvement. Well, thanks to some oil and gas activity on the lands back before they were included in a roadless area, and to shelterbelts, stock tanks and dams, fencing, and other range improvements by ranchers leasing the lands for grazing, the statute of limitations, which decided this case, applies. So thanks to the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division and the North Dakota Grazing Associations for your help with this decision.
- Back in 2014, Attorney General Stenehjem proposed we protect a number of “extraordinary places” from oil development, and a bunch of those were in or near the roadless areas that Judge Hovland’s opinion protects. Now that Stenehjem has lost this lawsuit, those “extraordinary places” of his will be better protected from development.
God, it’s good to win one once in a while. Now let’s get going on that Prairie Legacy Wilderness designation.
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.
We spent the weekend in the Little Missouri National Grasslands, camping in Slope County, at the Burning Coal Vein U.S. Forest Service campground, attending the Badlands Conservation Alliance outing, gathering with old friends and making new friends.
While Saturday was cool and windy, Sunday was a perfect 75 degrees and sunny. We also got a brief, but enjoyable, visit with our old friends, John and Jennifer Hanson of the Logging Camp Ranch, just before we departed for Medora. (Note: It appears that the USFS is now officially calling the LMNG the Dakota Prairie Grasslands. I think I’m too old to make an adjustment to this nomenclature.)
My pictures tell the story better than my words possibly could. I hope you like these. If you go, be sure to do your research in advance and buy yourself a map. And take water.
Back in Medora, the annual Car Show had just wrapped up, so we only got to see this sweetie when we stopped for ice cream.
Then, hoping for more juneberries, we headed down Scairt Woman Road to the Ice Caves in McKenzie County. No luck there but another pleasant hike before turning our car toward Bismarck and home.
I am in love with sandstone. With what water and wind does to sandstone.
Happy trails to you, gentle reader. Pray for rain.Maah Daah Hey trail
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.
A most delightful evening soiree was held at the Linda and Chuck Suchy farm south of Mandan on Sunday night. The occasion was a showing of Mandan, N.D. artist Ken Rogers’ “plein air” oil paintings, centered on the paintings Ken has recently done of Albert Jankus’ place. Albert, a longtime neighbor of Suchy’s, recently moved to Mandan. We were thrilled and honored to be among the guests.
From the evening’s handout, written by Ken Rogers:
“Chuck Suchy, in late June of 2016, told me about a farmstead in the Heart River valley southwest of Mandan, which he described as something you would see in eastern Europe — probably in National Geographic: simple, everything well-crafted and preserved. It would be wrong to call it abandoned, however, the farmer no longer lives there.
“I told Chuck I would like to paint there, and he agreed to make arrangements. …Several months later, in mid-September, I followed Chuck, down gravel roads, two-track grassy trail and through two gates to the farm.
“The farmstead had been the home of Albert Jankus, who’s in his 90s. … He’s a member of the Bohemian Hall, one of those ethnic community and funeral organizations to which first- and second-generation immigrants on the prairie belong.
“The derelict farm machinery surrounding the place appeared to be either horse-pulled or for pulling behind those old tractors with cleated steel wheels. The house was neatly, if not freshly, painted. … Everything is picked up and in its place.
“Periodically, I painted at the farmstead until early November. It was a great way to spend the fall. …
“The paintings are all ‘plein air,’ accomplished on site in two hours more or less. They are oil paint on board (masonite).
“The farm, and, in some small way, these paintings are a tribute to the life and work of Albert Jankus.”
“Plein air” is a French expression meaning “open air” that refers to creating a work of art outside. What genius it was for Ken to paint the beauty of North Dakota and how privileged were we to be with good friends for this special event.
Leaving the Suchy’s Morton County farm to return to the city is difficult, as the peace of the prairie is so present there. Until next time, thank you to Chuck and Linda, and to Ken.
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.
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.”
“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?
Whenever I cook this menu, I think, of course, of my Mississippi kin from whom I learned much of what I know about cooking.
I heated the griddle, slicked up the skillet with bacon grease and mixed up the cornbread batter. The smell of the hot grease on the cast iron griddle took me back to my Mama Crook’s (my paternal grandmother) sunny kitchen, south of Vaiden, Miss. I cooked the vegetables just as she did — and as my aunts do to this day — slowly simmered, with salt pork and a pinch of sugar. I have such happy memories of times spent in Mama Crook’s kitchen, (I will write more about her another day.)
Lena Belle (my Mama Crook) cooked catfish. And hush puppies. So much work and in a HOT kitchen, I tell ya. How she would have admired my new gas range and my copper cookware. I have three cast iron skillets. My Aunt Fran in Alabama puts me to shame as she has about a dozen!
While Bismarck has very good restaurants, we do like to cook at home and entertain. Tuesday night, we had a very special guest, our friend, Jay Clemens, Mandan, N.D.-born and raised, hailing now from California, via China.
It rained so we moved inside, without “no” complaints about the rain.
Our friends, David and Jan Swenson, completed the party. Jay loves the Bad Lands as much as we do, and the conversation was filled with talk of our beloved western North Dakota landscape. Jay and Jim go way back.
The walleye was tasty. The camaraderie was top-notch. And we got more rain!