Part 4: Pollution Solutions

People in North Dakota’s oil industry say a huge percentage of the population is happy about the growth the Bakken boom has brought. Some folks, though, say environmental damage is greater than is widely known and some of it may be hidden from the public.
With the development of drilling technology, North Dakota is now the second biggest oil producing state in the country. The increased activity brought thousands of jobs but it also brought problems for farmers who own much of the oil field land.

These are problems that growers feel could plague Kern County farmers if a new oil boom hits the Central Valley.

Donny Nelson is a third generation farmer in western North Dakota. Farming, he said, "is what I always wanted to do, I guess."

What he didn't want was dozens of oil wells in his backyard.

"Personally, I wish they weren't here," said Nelson. Things will "never be the same in my lifetime, if ever."

It's the third oil boom Nelson has seen in his lifetime.

"This is probably 10, 20 times larger," than previous booms, said Nelson.

The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources estimates 2,086 wells were started just last year and the more wells drilled, "the more accidents that occur," said Kris Roberts, Environment Geologist for the North Dakota Department of Environmental Health.

In the beginning, those accidents were casing ruptures in the well and averaged six per year in 2009.

In those cases, "the well was literally coming apart. The casing was splitting open," said Lynn Helms, Director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. "Obviously not an acceptable paradigm." So rules were changed to increase the strength of casing around wells.

Then in 2011 the western half of North Dakota flooded.

According to Helms, reserve pits on oil pads containing drilling fluids overflowed during heavy spring melting, spilling contaminated water onto the ground.

The next year regulators eliminated reserve pits.

"All the liquids are recycled or disposed of in underground injection," said Helms.

Regulators say the changes are typical of new regulations that are making North Dakota drilling safer for the environment.

Theodora Bird Bear thinks more oversight is needed. She lives on the western North Dakota's Indian reservation on a two-lane road. "I used to walk it every day," said Bird Bear. "Now it's too dangerous."

So Bird Bear has started to document in pictures what she sees, including the dust and what she believes is illegal dumping.

"In about 2009 or so, I started to see visible dumping spill on the highways," she said.

Bird Bear thinks oil industry truckers are dumping well wastewater. "It's either careless or deliberate."

The North Dakota Department of Health oversees spills away from wells.

The point man is Kris Roberts. "I wouldn't say it's a massive problem but it's happening enough to where we're really concerned with it," he said.

Roberts said there were 1,494 last year, all cleaned up by his his team of six.

"These impact small areas generally and it's not a widespread issue," said Roberts.

But Theodora Bird Bear is not satisfied.

"I rarely see any kind of enforcement come through here," said Bird Bear.

That may be because the state has no jurisdiction on reservation land. But it's not a sufficient excuse for Bird Bear, who says she sees more than just spills.

"There's been a fire about a mile from my house twice now from an open flare," said Bird Bear.

The flare was burning natural gas like many across the state right now, because the state lacks pipelines to carry the cheap fuel. But regulators say the frequency of flaring may soon fizzle.

"We have allowed the market to work on flaring for about two or three years. There's been progress but it's been too slow," said Helms.

For Bird Bear the damage is already being done.

"I believe the quality of air, water and life is under assault," said Bird Bear.

Rancher Donny Nelson agrees, and blames the drillers. "They got dollar signs in their eyes like everybody, I guess," said Nelson.

But those in the oil industry say Bird Bear and Nelson are the minority.

"For 80 percent of us out here, we enjoy it," said Blaine Hoffman, the district superintendent for western North Dakota for Whiting Oil and Gas.

Regulators say since the boom North Dakota's good air quality has remained constant.

"In the beginning, we were concerned that the booming industry was going to change that and to date it hasn't," said Jim Semerad, Manager for Permitting for the Division of Air Quality in the North Dakota Department of Health.

But with mass oil production, regulators say mistakes happen.

"It is inevitable that a certain number of accidents are going to happen on a fairly regular basis," said Roberts.

Accidents that Bird Bear and Nelson think are being hidden from the public.

"If the word really got out of what was going on, I think there would be concern. It gets kind of covered up," said Nelson.

In California according to the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, minus the Ventura and Sacramento areas, there were 53 well wastewater spills in 2012. Forty-one of those spills were in Kern County.
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