A month or so ago, in an article I first wrote for Dakota Country magazine and posted later here on my blog, I talked a bit about my father and his love of North Dakota’s outdoors. If you missed that, you can read it here. I need to share a few more words about my father — and growing up in southwest North Dakota.
Although my dad did enjoy a few years of Soil Bank pheasant hunting, it was nothing near the scale of the millions of acres of government-funded cropland converted to dense nesting cover for pheasants, ducks and deer provided by CRP in my lifetime. And except for pulling an occasional walleye from a Roosevelt-era, government-built dam on the Grand River south of Lemmon, S.D., his fishing was with a fly rod in a prairie creek, a wicker creel basket draped over his shoulder for his sunfish and bluegills.
Not that he enjoyed that any less than we enjoy what we have in the North Dakota outdoors today. On Thursday and Sunday afternoons, he ditched that suit and tie he wore to the office daily for 35 years, grabbed some jeans and boots or sneakers — and whichever of his seven kids was handy — and took off down the road with some kind of outdoors toy, usually a rod or gun, for a few hours in the outdoors. He died too young but left all seven of those kids, including the girls, with a legacy of love for the outdoors. He was no different than tens of thousands of prairie fathers of the 1950s and ’60s whose message to their children was, “We raised you in North Dakota. Appreciate it, take advantage of it, and take care of it.”
That was then. The world was much less complicated. When you have fought and won World War II, everything else that happens in your life pales. My dad never said those words, but he lived them. He knew he was one of the lucky ones. He came back from that war to a place he loved and got to live out his life here. He left a brother over there, named me after him and tried to raise me the way he thought his brother would have approved. And the same with the six kids who followed.
There was no question we were going to be raised in North Dakota — and nowhere else — even though he had seen much of the world and had traveled to the big city of Chicago to learn the optometric skills that were so badly needed here on the prairie. He loved this place. I am so grateful for that.
I think back to the summer days I got up early, dug some worms in the backyard garden, put my fishing pole over my bike’s handlebars and pedaled down to Mirror Lake to catch sunfish and bluegills and bullheads under a bobber. Mirror Lake was right there at the end of Hettinger’s Main Street (still is), and it was a small, 500- or 600-acre reservoir behind an earthen dam on Hiddenwood Creek, built by the railroad in the early days of the 20th century to provide water for the railroad’s steam engines.
When the lake silted in, sometime in the 1970s, my dad and his fellow Hettinger Park Board members breached the dam, drained the lake, dug it out and closed the dam back up to let Hiddenwood Creek refill it. After a lengthy stocking effort by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, locals still pull nice northern pike from the lake these days.
My dad died in 1984, and while I’m sad he missed so many years of enjoying the North Dakota outdoors with his grown children and grandchildren, I’m glad he’s not here today to see what has happened to his beloved western North Dakota. He first took us kids to the Bad Lands in August 1959 (there’s a reason I remember that date) to see the famous Burning Coal Vein. I don’t think he’d much like the fires that are burning there now — those giant gas flares that have stolen the night.
Western North Dakota is experiencing an environmental disaster like no one could ever have imagined. If you need some evidence of that, here it is.
Back in 2013, a Tesoro pipeline in northwest North Dakota burst and spilled 865,000 gallons of oil across the prairie, the worst land-based oil spill in U.S. history. It took quite a long time for the public to find out about that incident, so in response to a public outcry, the North Dakota Health Department created a website to track what they call “oilfield environmental incidents.” Every time there’s a leak or a spill of oil or fracking fluid or poisonous brine from a pipeline or a truck or well site, the company responsible for it is required to report that incident to the Health Department, and the incident is logged on the Department’s website.
A few weeks ago, I decided to write about this problem with oil and brine spilling all over western North Dakota, so I took a look at that website to see how the industry is doing. Here’s what I found:
I had to go all the way back to June 28, 2014, to find a day when there was not a spill somewhere in western North Dakota’s oil fields. That means that every single day for the previous 300 days there was a reported spill of either oil or brine. More than 1,500 spills in that 300 days, in fact. An average of more than five a day.
Because the state lacks inspectors to look at every pipeline and drilling site to make sure the oil companies are doing things safely, we’re spilling highly toxic oil and saltwater all over the western part of the state. When oil comes up out of the ground, toxic saltwater, called brine, comes up with it, and the brine has to be disposed of. Generally, it is pumped back underground into deep wells drilled for that purpose. The problem is getting the brine to those wells. It goes by gathering pipelines and trucks, and no one is inspecting those pipelines and trucks to see if they are safe. The result is spills, and when the brine and oil spills, it kills everything it comes in contact with — plants, animals, fish and birds. And renders the ground sterile.
To try to get some idea of just how bad this is, I added up all the oil and brine spills between April 23, 2014 and April 23, 2015. Here’s what I found.
During that one-year time period, there were 1,995 spills, an average of almost 6 spills per day. The biggest was 3 million gallons of brine spilled into a creek north of Williston. That creek runs into another creek, which then runs into Lake Sakakawea, where most of western North Dakota gets its drinking water, and where a lot of us get walleyes and northern pike.
- During those 12 months, a total of 993,762 gallons of oil spilled onto the ground in western North Dakota. Almost a million gallons. On the ground. Into the ground.
- During the same time period, a total of 5,468,148 gallons of saltwater brine spilled onto the ground in western North Dakota. Much of it ran into nearby creeks and wetlands.
The 3 million-gallon spill occurred in January of this year. Much of the saltwater froze. To get rid of it, the oil company cut the ice into big blocks and hauled them away in trucks to a landfill somewhere. That had to be the darnedest thing to watch. Close your eyes and try to picture big blocks of ice on flatbed trailers heading down the highway. I don’t know where that landfill is, but by now, those ice chunks have surely melted, and I don’t know where that water went. I don’t know if I even want to know that.
I tried to figure out how many spills there have been since this boom started. I don’t really know when the boom started, so I went back to January 1, 2005, ten years ago. The number is just a few shy of 10,000, which is an average, since 2005, of 1,000 spills a year. Fewer in the early years, when there were fewer wells. More today. Many, many more. I can’t add up the gallons spilled. I don’t think my calculator goes that high. But even if the average number per year is half of what it was last year, that would be almost 5 million gallons of oil and almost 30 million gallons of saltwater spilled onto the ground in western North Dakota in the past ten years. You can look at all of this yourself by going here.
About half of the spills each year occur in McKenzie, Dunn and Billings counties. Those are the Bad Lands counties. ‘Nuf said.
I would be less upset about all this if the state of North Dakota was doing something about it. But the governor and the Legislature have consistently refused to provide funds for an adequate number of pipeline inspectors, and the oil companies will just keep on letting this happen, especially now, when they’re really cutting corners because the price of oil is half of what it used to be, and they’re only getting half as rich as they used to get.
The Health Department has a few inspectors who leave the office when they are called after an accident occurs. I think they are on the road most of the time these days. For example, they still pay regular visits to the site of the Tesoro pipeline spill, which happened nearly two years ago now. In their last visit, they reported that the company is still cleaning that mess up and had removed most of the dirt that was tainted by oil — a total of 276 million pounds of oil soaked dirt. It’s being hauled to a landfill. Good grief, it must be full by now. At the site of the 3 million gallon saltwater spill, the Health Department has inspectors attending weekly, sometimes daily, briefing sessions as the cleanup continues. No report yet on how much, if any, saltwater reached Lake Sakakawea.
But all this leads me to the final point I want to make. Last year, a group of conservation organizations placed an initiated measure on the North Dakota ballot to set aside some of the billions of dollars in oil tax money being collected by the state, to be used conservation programs. It was soundly rejected by the voters, including many sportsmen and women. One of the reasons it was rejected is that Gov. Jack Dalrymple held a press conference 35 days before the election, and flanked by supposed Legislative supporters of North Dakota outdoors projects, announced that he was setting aside $50 million in his 2015-2017 biennial budget for conservation projects in the existing Outdoor Heritage Fund. Here are the governor’s words: “I believe we should increase the funding to $50 million for the upcoming biennium and adjust the formula to ensure it reaches its maximum funding level.”
Well, that was September. BEFORE the election. In December, AFTER the election, the governor released his budget proposal, and what it said was that he wanted to authorize spending of “up to $50 million.” But he did not “adjust the formula” to get the funding to that level. He just left that to the Legislature, which promptly adopted a formula that is going to generate just $22 million in the coming biennium — not even half what the governor promised.
Worse, the Industrial Commission, chaired by the very same governor, has already overspent the fund’s income for the present biennium, so they’ve had to dip into next biennium’s money, which means the reality is that instead of $50 million, the Outdoor Heritage Fund is really only going to have somewhere between $15 million and $20 million. Like I said in an earlier post here, we were lied to.
Yes, the governor can claim that he put a $50 million figure in his budget, but all he really did was put a proposal in his budget to spend “up to $50 million,” without a formula to generate the funds, and threw the budget down the hall to the Legislature and then never showed up even once to defend that budget. He might as well have said “up to a billion dollars,” because the formula adopted by the Legislature is only going to generate enough to spend $15 to $20 million anyway.
That doesn’t come anywhere close to mitigating the environmental damage being done in the oil fields. But it does build a lot of playgrounds, which is what a whole bunch of the money is being used for. And playgrounds make a lot of young voters with kids happy.
OK, I got that off my chest. I know, I know, it was a harsh ending to a story with a happy beginning. But I just can’t stop thinking about my dad and his love for western North Dakota, and how ashamed he would be today at what we are letting happen here. He wasn’t a man given to cussing — he had seven kids around and had to watch his tongue. But he’d at least thinking bad words today, I’m pretty sure.
Oh, and the reason I remember when it was he first took me to the Bad Lands is this. My dad was the first president of the Hettinger Fraternal Order of Eagles and remained active in that organization all his life. Not so long after the Home on the Range for Boys at Sentinel Butte was established, the Eagles helped create the Champions Ride Rodeo, still held the first Saturday of August, in a hot, dusty rodeo arena at the ranch for troubled boys, as a fundraiser for the Home on the Range.
Not long after my dad got his brand new 1959 Pontiac station wagon, in the summer of 1959, he loaded my mom and however many kids they had at the time (I think 5) into it and took us to the Champions Ride, as the official representative of the Hettinger Eagles Aerie. On the way, we went to the burning coal vein, located northwest of Amidon, where we kids got to see, feel, and smell the coal burning deep underground through a big crack in the earth.
I’ll never forget feeling the heat come from the glowing red coals we could see deep down in the ground, and the smell of sulfur burning. (The fire is out now, but the Forest Service has a campground there and you can still see the place where the fire burned.)
From there we went up to old Highway 10 (Interstate 94 wasn’t built yet), and I saw the Bad Lands for the first time. I’ve been hooked ever since, and fiercely protective, which is part of the reason — no, most of the reason — I write on this blog. We went over to Sentinel Butte to see the rodeo, and afterwards, on the way home, we stopped in Medora and had hamburgers in the cafe at the old Rough Riders Hotel. And I know that had to be in 1959, because we were in our brand-new 1959 Pontiac station wagon, my mom fretting we were going to get it all full of dust. She was right.