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Published July 20 2013

Forum editorial: Downside and upside of ND oil

Several news stories out of oil country last week confirmed what every thoughtful North Dakotan knows, but many others choose to downplay. The reports underscore the costs of the oil boom, and no matter how cheerleaders attempt to spin the facts, the facts won’t spin.

The first came from, of all places, Jamestown, N.D., which is far from the Bakken play in the state’s northwest quadrant. The Stutsman County Commission amended a zoning ordinance to deal with crew camps, should companies want to build them in the county. That’s a pre-emptive strike. The commission’s action testifies to the realization that Oil Patch counties were woefully unprepared for oil worker camps and are still playing catch-up.

In another development, the Associated Press reported the cleanup from a 2006 oil-related million-gallon saltwater spill is not completed. The end, state officials said, is nowhere in sight. The toxic saltwater flowed from a ruptured pipeline into a creek near Alexander, N.D. The creek has been restored, but a pond and aquifer remain tainted – after nearly eight years.

The company was fined. State officials said the spill happened in the early years of the boom, and today safeguards and regulations are in place. Maybe so. But today there also are more pipelines, trucks and other equipment carrying hazardous materials. One northwest rancher put it this way: “The potential for something way bigger exists than what happened at Charbonneau Creek. Much bigger.”

At a Tuesday hearing in Washburn, N.D., McLean County commissioners said no to a power company request to convert a fly ash pit into an oilfield waste pit. More than 120 people packed the hearing room, most opposed to an oil pit.

The people of that area are not against energy development. It’s coal country. They understand the tradeoffs. But they drew the line at oil waste, having, we suspect, been made aware of spills and threats to water – reported and unreported – in oil country.

Finally – and probably most disconcerting – Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., convinced the director of national drug control policy to visit oil country for a close-up of the growing problem of illegal drug trafficking. U.S. attorneys in North Dakota and Montana are on the front lines of the new-to-the-region drug war. They have been candid about the threat. Their concern has deepened because traffickers appear to be connected to organized crime, as defined by the feds. It is serious business: a development North Dakota has not had to confront until the oil boom took off.

Everyone knows the benefits of unprecedented oil and gas development in the state. The economic upsides are everywhere, from Fargo to Watford City: good jobs, spectacular tax revenues, population growth, and new life in places that were declining. But it is a mistake to soft-pedal downsides that can rapidly undermine the social foundations of communities, and poison the soil and water of farms, ranches and cities.

Still there is good news. The examples cited above show that many North Dakotans are paying attention and acting.


Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.