JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Fracking And Flaring At Van Hook

Here’s an article I wrote for the December issue of Dakota Country magazine, which should be on the newsstands this week. If you’re not already a subscriber, you should be. Here’s the place to go to sign up. They’ve got a Christmas sale going on right now, and the price is right.

A year and a half ago, I wrote these words in Dakota Country magazine:

“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. Drilling could start there any day now.”

Well, I’m here to report that drilling is done. Sixteen oil wells later. I think that’s the right number, It looks like 12 wells at the top of the boat ramp, behind a 35-foot high wall (the drilling company, Slawson Exploration, could give Donald Trump a lesson in wall building, all done without a single U.S. troop on site) and four more on the other end of the settlement, the two drilling pads nicely bookending this little resort community.

Every time I’ve been to Van Hook, it has been one of the quietest places on earth. The two most common sounds are the songs of the meadowlarks on the nearby prairie and the park on the west end of town, and the occasional gunning of an outboard motor as an eager fisherman heads away from the boat ramp out into the lake in pursuit of walleyes.

At night, when the sky is clear and the wind is quiet, the lake is a giant mirror reflecting a million stars and a brilliant moon as you look south from the porches of the cabins or the picnic tables in the park.

No more. Now the flares ruin everything.

If you’ve ever heard the roar of a gas flare on an oil pad, you’ll understand why the residents of this little community have headed home and won’t be back until next summer, skipping a pretty good fall bite in the Van Hook Arm of Lake Sakakawea. Some are talking about not coming back at all and looking for “For Sale” signs. Slawson is running four big flares on the east end of town, just a few hundred yards away from the summer homes and a few year-around residences.

I asked one of the residents what it sounded like on Nov. 1, the day I wrote this article. “Well, you have to keep your windows closed, and outside it’s just a big roar. It sounds like a jet plane going over, but it never goes by.”

And it’s not just the noise. The dark night sky is now lit by the towering flames of hundred-foot candles, and the flares don’t capture all the gas. Some escapes, and you know what natural gas smells like. Worse than rotten eggs.

That’s the east end of town. On the west end, they’re still fracking the wells. That’s a noisy operation, too. When the fracking is done, and the wells start pumping, I’m guessing they’ll torch the flares there, too. What the locals call “The Great Wall of Slawson” is still there, and it’s what you see when you drive up to the boat ramp after a day of fishing. That’ll likely come down some day, after the fracking and flaring is done.

From then on, you’ll just be treated to the view of a huge oil operation at the top of the ramp after a day on the lake. We don’t yet know how many flares, if any, Slawson will put at the top of the ramp, but we’ll know pretty soon, I’d guess.

The thing is, this could have all been avoided if it weren’t for the greed of the oil industry and our state and federal government officials. It’s been greed that’s driven the Bakken boom, and that’s turning out to be the worst environmental disaster ever in North Dakota.

The oil that’s being pumped through those new wells is coming from under Lake Sakakawea, as far as a mile from shore under the lake. Slawson drilled down a mile or two, then, ran the pipe south under the lake to get at the oil, which is owned by the U.S. government and overseen by its agency, the Bureau of Land Management.

The federal government will be collecting royalties on every barrel of oil pumped through those wells. So it wanted to make it as easy as possible for Slawson to get at it. They government encouraged Slawson to put its oil field hard up against the Lake Sakakawea shoreline, sparking a lawsuit by the Three Affiliated Tribes against Slawson for putting the wells closer than a thousand feet the lake, in violation of tribal policy. The court system has ruled against the tribes. So far.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission had two chances to get Slawson away from the lake and the resort community, the first when it rejected a “Special Places” restriction on wells within a mile of the lake, and the second when it issued a drilling permit for Slawson to drill beside the lake.

Greed came into play two ways there, the first when the Industrial Commission, comprised of the governor, the attorney general and the agriculture commissioner, saw the oil taxes they could collect for the state, and the second when they began drooling over the campaign contributions they could rake in if they treated the oil industry nice.

The thing is, if there was ever an oil company that should have not gotten favorable treatment, it is Slawson, which is the worst of the worst polluters ever to do business in North Dakota. Since it began doing business here, Slawson has had more than 150 oil fluid spills at their more than 300 wells in the Bakken and numerous Federal Clean Air Act violations in its gathering and storage systems.

In 2016, the EPA took Slawsom to court and collected more than $2 million in fines from the company for releasing an estimated 15,000 tons of methane — you read that right, 15,000 TONS — into the North Dakota air. In addition, according to the EPA’s website, the company is being forced to spend something like $6 million to clean up their operating systems. I don’t know if that is done yet, but I hope the EPA is checking on Slawson regularly now.

But Slawson hasn’t solved its spill problems yet. On Oct. 12 of this year, during the final stages of one of the wells, a blowout occurred, which has been the greatest fear of Van Hook residents.

Terry Fleck, president of the Friends of Lake Sakakawea and a cabin owner at Van Hook, told me last year when drilling started that his greatest fear is what happens if a blowout occurs that close to the lake. Well, it happened. And according to the North Dakota Health Department’s website, “Approximately an area of 15,000 yards was impacted.”

This house got sprayed during a blowout this fall. The drilling rig is right across the street from the house.
This house got sprayed during a blowout this fall. The drilling rig is right across the street from the house.

That’s an area the size of three football fields. And inside that area was a house just east of the well site, which was sprayed with some kind of lubricant. The home’s owners did not want to talk with me about this. That’s understandable. A lot of people in the area, including, I’ve heard, some of their family members, work in the oil industry. But I’ve heard they’re talking to a lawyer. Good for them. The oil pad sits just across the street from their house. This house got sprayed during a blowout this fall. I can’t imagine their lives have been very pleasant for the last year.

All that we know for sure is that a sleepy little blue-collar resort community has been changed forever. I guess it could be worse, though. In the 1950s, the residents of the town and the neighboring town of Sanish (many of them Native Americans whose families had lived in the area for generations) were evacuated and relocated to New Town, just down state Highway 23 on higher ground, when the two towns were expected to be flooded by the waters backing up behind the newly constructed Garrison Dam.

Sanish went under, but Van Hook escaped, and was resettled as a resort community in the 1970s. Now it’s a mostly-white summer community with a smattering of year-around homes, surrounded by the Three Affiliated Tribes Reservation, but managed by the Mountrail County Park Board.

And it’s home to one of the most popular boat ramps on Lake Sakakawea. We’ll just have to wait and see if this new neighbor, Slawson Exploration, changes all that again. I’ll keep you posted. Merry Christmas.

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